March 15, 2010
With the shortened budget adoption process this year due to snowstorms and the resulting cancellation of school committee meetings, there are bound to be many questions that arise that the district has not yet had the opportunity to answer. The school committee and I welcome questions as well as a willingness to discuss in an open and fair manner the underlying assumptions and answers to such questions, preferably before the annual town meetings. As James Madison wrote, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” Given that our annual town meetings are the governance aspect of town and district budgets, having factual information available to review before the moment of decision would be beneficial to all. I am grateful for those towns and town officials who attended the district’s public hearing on the budget, but rather disappointed in the overall turnout at that meeting.
One basic question that has come up recently about the district’s budget is why, if student enrollment has decreased, hasn’t the district’s overall budget decreased? While this question has a multitude of complex answers, let’s look at some basic underlying reasons.
To begin with, much like our towns, there is a certain amount of infrastructure that must be supported (buildings, roads, legally required staffing) that doesn’t change if the population changes. This infrastructure requires a level of support for maintenance and upkeep, whose costs rise with the price of utilities, labor and supplies. Although we will consolidate schools for the 2010-2011 school year, some of our savings will be offset by increased utility costs and having more wear and tear with the increase in the number of students using the remaining buildings. Looking at this in another way, the miles of roads maintained by towns hasn’t increased dramatically but the cost of the upkeep certainly has (and one could argue that these cost increases have made it impossible to truly maintain roads in a pristine condition).
Gateway is also required to support a specific level of services to special populations whether these be for educational needs, social or behavioral needs, or needs due to economic status. If we put this in terms of our towns, think about the specialized support for certain populations (the elderly, veterans, physically challenged, certain businesses, etc.). For the district, the numbers and types of students requiring specialized services of one type or the other have increased, as has the cost of such services. In extreme cases, we have found costs to have risen dramatically with some specialized services costing the district tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars per student (this support is often required under state law or regulations). Some supports require a very small staff to student ratio that tends to drive up the overall level of staffing required in the district. Even with all of these additional requirements, our overall staffing levels have decreased nearly 10% from 2003. Of course, like other government entities and private enterprises, individual labor costs have risen over time, which also tends to drive up the overall costs, especially if we look at the costs of health insurance (which the district has done very well in controlling).
The school committee’s primary responsibility is to provide for the needs of all students. Many of the items we offer are the result of laws and regulations that are often put into place to ensure adequate student support. In many cases, these requirements are initially put into place concurrently with state or federal funding that eventually is reduced or eliminated, although the need to meet such requirements is not removed. The most striking example of this is regional transportation where distances to be walked, number of seats required and many other issues are dictated by regulation but the promise of 100% reimbursement for meeting these requirements has rarely been fully met. While we have reduced the numbers of buses transporting students, this has only partially offset the increased costs of transportation and certainly hasn’t reduced the cost to the towns as the state continues to decrease the amount of transportation reimbursement to the district.
In short, while the district endeavors to save money and be efficient wherever possible, the fact that we have fewer students doesn’t automatically translate to a reduced budget. However, if our student numbers had not dropped, the overall budget would have increased to a much larger amount—thus the small increase in the district’s budget is in many ways related to a decrease in overall student population.