May 25, 2023
Next Steps for the School Budget
By Gregory T. Federspiel
As many residents know, the proposed School District budget did not receive the needed Proposition 2 1/2 override in Essex. Essex approved a lower amount which, because of the apportionment formula, would also lower the amount Manchester approved, resulting in nearly $800,000 less in District spending for the new fiscal year that begins July 1,2023. The School Committee is currently working through options with the aim of voting on a path forward at their meeting on June 6.
This past Tuesday, May 23, the School Committee hosted a public hearing to offer residents from both communities an opportunity to express their preferred approaches to getting to an approved budget. A large turnout packed the cafeteria and many more joined virtually expressing strong support for the budget that was presented at the annual town meetings. In addition to concerned parents, supportive empty-nesters and worried teachers, a large contingent of current students and recent graduates voiced their support for programs that are on a tentative list to be reduced or eliminated. Passionate, often emotional comments were delivered to the School Committee advocating for sticking with the proposed budget that was approved at the annual town meetings in both towns but failed the ballot override question in Essex.
Prior to the School Committee hearing the Manchester Finance Committee and the Select Board met to discuss the overall situation. Given the defeat of the proposed override at the ballot, the consensus of the two bodies was that the School Committee should advance a compromise budget, one that would require a smaller override vote for Essex. If a reduced overall budget was approved the two towns would avoid the necessity of holding a joint town meeting. The two boards also recommend that the School Committee should consider potential cuts across the board and not focus on any one area. Additional recommendations included using all school choice funds annually, revisiting the amount of reserves being carried by the District and pursuing new revenues (fees for specialized programs, etc.).
There is also interest in beginning a new process involving the two towns and the School Committee aimed at examining new approaches that may bring about higher efficiencies while advancing quality education. Regardless of how the FY24 budget gets resolved, there remains the longer-term issue of stable funding for the District. To avoid annual struggles over budgets new agreements are needed on the level of funding the residents are willing to support. Determining what type of school system residents want and how the two towns should best pay for the system will require a concerted effort to engage voters.
One of the issues that complicates getting to an approved budget is shifting demographics and enrollment patterns from Manchester and Essex. How much each town contributes to the district is based on three factors – the number of students from each town, the total population in each community, and the total value of all properties in each town. The latter two factors are fairly stable. Enrollment patterns have fluctuated. It was not that long ago that Manchester was adding more students relative to Essex and thus Manchester was picking up a bigger share of the annual increase in the District’s budget. The enrollment pattern has now changed. Manchester’s student population has declined relative to Essex’s causing Essex to now pick up a larger share of any proposed annual increase. Thus, a District wide increase in spending of say 3% can turn into a 5% increase for Essex and only a 2% increase in Manchester. This is a reversal of what was happening for many years prior to the past few years. Enrollment patterns are smoothed out over a three-year period per the regional school agreement.
Once a new budget is approved by the School Committee new special town meetings will be needed in each town. These are likely to take place in late June. If the new budget requires an override in Essex, a special election will be needed to approve the override. If this second round of votes was to fail in either community, a third try would be needed. This third try would be a joint town meeting with a majority vote of the combined attendees. A third try would not be dependent on an override vote. The joint vote is binding on both towns.
The month of June and possibly July will be important ones for determining next year’s budget for the regional school district.