SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – The Shrewsbury School Committee held it’s annual budget forum tonight, and while it was, by no means a packed house, there were about 70 concerned parents who braved the cold to come out and hear first hand the state of the school district. Superintendent Joe Sawyer kicked off the night with a recap of what we are calling the “budget gap,” between his proposed recommendation for an 8% or $4 million dollar increase over last year, vs. the increase of 300k recommended by town manager Dan Morgado. This issue has always been an interesting negotiation process each year, as the figures are often far apart in January, but get closer as we near the official town meeting in May. This year has, unfortunately been more contentious than most, after the widely discussed lambasting of the School Committee by the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday that has turned off more than a few parents, and left many residents shaking their heads and wondering just what went wrong.
Much of it likely was precipitated by the original budget presentation two weeks ago by Dr. Sawyer, which was not actually a formal budget recommendation, but merely laid out what I have come to call the “semi-dream budget,” a number all knew was never going to happen in a million years. This $54 Million figure speculated on the addition of dozens of new teaching, paraprofessional and administrative positions in the hopes of reducing class sizes, keeping up with mandated increases for special education and contractual obligations, and returning is, at the very least, to the still understaffed state we were in prior to the cuts we endured this year. Naturally, we do need these positions, of course, and many more, but there was no chance that money existed in the budget to actually do any of that, and it would appear to me from their commentary on Thursday that the Selectmen took this as a “shot across the bow,” and wish that the School Committee would actually just present a realistic budget request on day 1, rather than go through this exercise each year of asking for the moon and then whittling it down like the death by a thousand cuts.
Thankfully, Shrewsbury has been exempt over the years from that kind of divisiveness which is actually the norm in many School Committee – Selectmen relationships in other communities, but it would appear that the love affair between the two boards is over, as the Selectmen, under pressure from some constituents to place an operational override on the ballot, have continued to block that from happening, despite public outcry, and most importantly without any consultation with the School Committee, or input from the stakeholders in town. Selectman Jim Kane attended last nights forum, and spoke eloquently about his role as a parent, and how his children have continued to thrive here in the high quality Shrewsbury schools. He too joined with other speakers in recommending that the School Committee focus on class size as a top priority in the budget process, while still admonishing those listening that one reason the Selectmen have not endorsed an operational override is that past attempts have “gone down in flames,” which drew a few groans from the audience and is certainly not what that group of parents in attendance really wanted to hear. He also went on to remind the School Committee that it’s just lovely for them to talk about adding dozens of new teachers, but that just because they find the money in their school department budget to do that, doesn’t mean it can or should happen without input from them and the town manager, because the municipal side is responsible for funding the health care insurance and pension requirements for those people, and the money doesn’t exist on that side to do any of that.
Of course, we as a community have grossly underfunded our schools, as well as other municipal departments such as police, fire and highways, and rank near the bottom in school funding as opposed to other communities. That said, while I would support an override personally, and hope we at least do get the opportunity to vote on one this year, it probably wouldn’t pass anyway, and really would do little or nothing to solve the problem at hand. ( I think I’ll write a separate article on that issue today, rather than clog this one up with my own personal views. )
Back to where we are currently – the situation is actually far more critical than I surmised last week when I first wrote about the process. I had speculated at that time that if you took away Dr. Sawyers “wish list” of adding positions, which clearly isn’t even remotely possible, and just focused on the statutorily required amounts due to non-negotiable special education costs, and contractual salary increases, you were still looking at the need for just over 1.4 million in additional revenue. It appears now that this figure is closer to $2 million, which means that rather than adding new positions, and reducing class sizes they are probably going to have to cut another 20 or so FTE’s in order to get anywhere near the town managers proposed funding level. This will likely take the form of increases in class size in other grades, drastic reduction in programming, further increases in the already grossly oppressive fees being charged to parents, and further eroding the quality of our schools, and by definition the property values of all of our residents, parents or not. At the same time, these changes will drive more and more parents to enroll their students in charter schools, and for every few that leave our district, we lose the equivalent amount of funding of yet another teaching position, which continues the slippery slope of decline that we are on.
Where does this all leave us as a district? Well, it’s hard to say. Actually, it’s really not hard to say, it’s just painful to say. Many feel that this year is going to be a turning point here in Shrewsbury. As we finish celebrating the grand opening of our latest flagship school, we will watch as the staff is further decimated by the looming and inevitable budget cuts, class sizes will grow, test scores will drop, and until someone chooses to develop the critical mass to actually do something about it, things will not get any better. To date, that mass has just not been there, either financially or intellectually, and few are willing to attempt the bold new initiatives that could actually solve this problem, which is, of course not unique to Shrewsbury.
Our leaders are all great individuals, who really do care about our schools more than people think, although only one member of the Board of Selectmen, and I think one member of the Finance Committee currently has kids in school. Those who try to paint the picture of a bunch of board members who are clueless and don’t care are way out of line, as I feel was the tongue lashing from members of the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday who seem to take the position that they are constantly being attacked by parents, and that they don’t need letters telling them we have a budget crisis, as though they were unaware. Then again, they will all likely be unopposed once again in this years election, because nobody else seems to want to run for office here in Shrewsbury, which I think is actually a pitiful statement on our democracy, but don’t get me started on that topic. I find it personally frustrating that so many cry out for change, but none of them are willing to step up and run for office. I suppose having done it, I understand why, and having lived first hand with the frustration of being the one dissenting vote, sometimes one of two, thanks to Mark and Dale, calling out for change and challenging the status quo, I would not wish that on anyone else. Still, with the passion that is obviously out there, and the obvious frustration that exists in the community, you would think that one or two people would emerge in a town of 30,000 that are willing to at least try.
In the meantime, stay tuned for the budget process to continue to evolve. Over the next few weeks, you will see several very predictable developments. First, Dr. Sawyer will revise his budget request down to the bare bones of “level service,” which will be an increase of about $2 million. Town manager Morgado, who is always very conservative with his initial projections, will likely come up from his 300k to 600k and things will get closer. Then the state will provide us with better guidance on funding availability for circuit breaker and chapter 70, and that will get us down to a $1M gap. Then the cuts in staff will probably begin, largely through attrition I hope, and perhaps aided by another early retirement program, and then you’ll start hearing how they are proposing to increase fees, and we will somehow come to a balanced figure that we are all just going to have to live with for now – until next year comes along, of course, and we’re back in the same boat again.
Oh, and by the way, I don’t mean to be Debbie Downer here. It’s not nearly as hopeless as it seems, and there most definitely are things that we can do, and novel approaches that we can take. None are a silver bullet, but all would go a long way towards helping the situation, and yes, I’ve shared those thoughts with those on the committee time and time again, and hope that they actually get together and explore them further this year. Don’t forget folks, as we talk about a million dollars here or there, and the 20 teaching positions that represents, that we are still spending $9 million dollars over our $50 million budget just on educating Shrewsbury students outside of Shrewsbury, and paying to transport them there. That’s a story for another day though.