SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – The amount of meetings, analysis, planning and discussion that goes into formulating the Shrewsbury fiscal budget would overwhelm just about anyone involved in the process. I know for certain that it did that for me when I was in the middle of it all. I have to admit that it is somewhat of a relief to be able to watch it passively from the outside, without the need for those meetings that ran until 11PM night after night, each of them trying to formulate the best plan of action for the 6000 students of the Shrewsbury School District. The choices that need to be made are mind-boggling, to say the least, and far more frustrating is that regardless of what we would decide the priorities were, in the end there was never enough money to pay for all that we felt was a critical priority. Such is the real world of municipal budgeting.
Fortunately, we live in a community with some great leaders, from Superintendent Sawyer, to Town Manager Morgado, and many others, and they have worked hard to make Shrewsbury as fiscally responsible as they can, with the funds which they had available. Still, we face the same challenges as most other municipalities, which is just a lack of dollars coming in, and the weight of Federal and State mandates holding us back from the greatness that we are undoubtedly capable of.
As has been reported, Superintendent Sawyer released his proposed school funding budget for the upcoming fiscal year, asking for an increase in spending of $7.8 Million, with which to add 84 positions to the district. This figure would represent an increase of nearly 15% in spending over the current fiscal year. In addition to adding the 84 positions, this budget includes $1.25 Million for updating curriculum materials, $1.025 Million for technology upgrades, $1.25 Million for operational and contractual cost increases, $350,000 to deal with mental and behavioral health issues, and $370,000 for in-district special education needs.
These proposed expenditures are based not on trying to create the “Rolls Royce” of school districts, but rather to try to repair the damage caused by years of underfunding, and the deferral of expenditures that should have been done long ago. In terms of our AP Programming alone, we are at risk of losing the accreditation of some courses, merely because we have not updated the textbooks as required by the guidelines. Simultaneously, our science lab classes remain dangerously over the recommended limit of students, and there are not nearly enough work stations to cram 25+ students into a lab setting dealing with potentially hazardous components. These issues are by no means limited to the high school. In fact, programming has been cut at all levels, and as class sizes have risen, and extracurriculars reduced, it has increased the potential for students to be “left behind,” in a world where we had previously been operating under the “no child left behind” guidelines. Ironic, isn’t it?
Of course I agree 100% with the proposed budget, and think it is the only responsible course of action to take our district back to where it should be. In fact, I would actually think that we need closer to $11 Million to do it right. That said, there is, of course, no possible way that such a budget would be approved, and as such it is merely a way for the school department to say to the parents of the community that it is not them (the school department and school committee), holding us back from this greatness. No, it says, they understand fully well what the parents, and the students need at this point, and to some extent, that takes the onus off of them, and places it where it probably belongs, which is in the hands of the Board of Selectmen, and subsequently to the residents of Shrewsbury to decide what to do from here. The only short-term solution, and sadly this is ONLY a short-term solution, would be an override vote that would raise taxes in town by somewhere around $10-11 million, or just under 10% across the board. Sadly, that is just not likely to happen in my lifetime, either because the Board of Selectmen have adamantly refused to place it on the ballot and allow the residents to vote on it, or because in all candor, even if they did, it probably would fail to pass, as it has every other time it has been tried. Of course, even with so many residents advocating so vociferously year after year for a need to pass an override, few seem to be willing to step up and run for office, and keep electing the same slate of officials who, with the exception of one, are consistently against an override.
In any event, the question then remains, where do we go from here? There really are no easy solutions, at least none that can be found “inside the box,” using the systems currently in place. Outside of that box, of course, there are countless ideas, from a reform of special education funding mechanisms, to a change in education delivery methods, and of course completely throwing away the compensation programs and starting from scratch with a system that will enable us to increase pay for our finest teachers, and bring the entire industry up in the process. None of those will happen though, and so I won’t waste my breath talking about them again, as I have railed on them enough in the past.
Instead, I go back to the original question and try to explore what the ultimate budget might look like months down the road. You see, what many who are not intimately involved in the process do not realize, is that while we must begin these discussions months in advance, they really are limited completely by facts that cannot possibly be in hand this early. Factors such as the cost increases in municipal employee health insurance, funding available from Beacon Hill, the extent to which circuit breaker reimbursement will be funded, the increases in tuition for out of district special education funding, and even the simple idea as to whether or not the Shrewsbury Education Association members will ratify the tentative contract, which will then dictate what we will need for salaries in the coming year. By the way. one interesting note contained within the budget proposal – the $1.25 million for operational and contractual cost increases – may hint at the beginning terms of whatever may have been in that tentative agreement with the SEA. If the current school budget provides for about $40M in salaries, then a $1M increase overall, when one deducts the cost of step increases, would probably imply an agreement of somewhere around a 1% cost of living increase for the coming year. Of course, that is pure speculation on my part, and I will happily wait for that information to be released, and of course ratified, before considering it.
Ultimately, in the absence of an override, there likely won’t be a huge amount of increased funds available for the coming year. With Mr. Morgado having generously allocated substantial funds from free cash last year to balance the school budget and save us from losing additional positions, it is doubtful that much will be provided from the free cash fund this year. Assuming that a contract is ratified with the SEA, and looking at the breakdown of the figures in Dr Sawyers proposed budget, one could presume that an increase of $1.5-1.7 Million will be required, merely to provide a level-service budget, meaning maintaining the status quo exactly where it is today. Given some improvement in the overall economic condition statewide, and the new building which has occurred in Shrewsbury over the last year, I’m confident that there certainly won’t be a danger of being able to come up with an extra $1.5 Million, but that doesn’t account for the fact that some of last years school budget came from a free cash account that may not be available to use this year. As a result, and again this is in the absence on a much needed override, we may find ourselves struggling to hit that level service number yet again. Hopefully that won’t be the case, and we can hit that number and even go beyond, allowing us to make some of the much needed investments in the district. What those investments might prove to be, of course, lies in the hands of the School Committee and the Administration. They will, no doubt, have some really tough choices to make. Do we go with the long-standing priority of reducing class sizes, and spend the money on hiring staff, or do we realize the dire consequences of not upgrading our textbook, language lab, and other programs? How can one possibly choose between two things, each so imperative to the children of Shrewsbury? I honestly don’t know, but I’m glad we have the leaders that we do, and trust that they know how the residents of Shrewsbury feel about the matter, and will make the best possible decisions they can.
Obviously, stay tuned over the next few months as the situation develops and clarifies. In the meantime, keep speaking out, stay informed and involved, and make sure that everyone knows that you care.