Methuen School Committee Reduces Budget

By: DJ DEEB – June, 2017

Methuen High (1)At our May 22nd Methuen School Committee meeting, members of the committee voted to approve an operating budget for fiscal year 2018 of $72 million, a decrease of 2% from last year’s operating budget of $73.47 million. This is a positive development given the constraints of our city, but more still needs to be done to address overall city spending and the skyrocketing costs of retiree health insurance to ensure that essential services receive adequate funding in the future and that the burden does not continue to shift to taxpayers.

The FY 2018 school operating budget of $72 million is a decrease of 2% from last year’s principle operating expenses of $73.47 million. The Methuen Schools Administrative Team should be commended for working to consolidate positions, reorganize employee job descriptions, and trim non-essential spending in order to reduce overall costs. The Methuen school department was the only department in the City of Methuen to request and receive less funding from last year. The Police, DPW, and Fire Departments all requested and received more money for next year than this past year.

It should be noted that this school department budget addresses school committee priorities, avoids layoffs, and maximizes resources in the classroom while still cutting overall spending.
In her message to the Methuen school committee, Superintendent Judy Scannell stated,
“This budget has been achieved through a combination of means: realignment of personnel, modification of programs, reduction in personnel which are unnecessary or inefficient, cuts in non-salaried items, and efficient budgeting at the school sites; all resulting in thoughtful use of very limited financial resources.”

A partial listing of school committee priorities included not charging user fees for athletics and after-school activities, not charging user fees for bus transportation, managing facility and grounds maintenance, continuing to offer no-fee kindergarten, expanding the availability of technology, enhancing enrichment programs in the upper schools, and maintaining reasonable class sizes at all levels.

It should also be noted that the FY 2018 budget contains an additional $14,480,434 for city chargebacks to cover services and health care costs for school department retirees. The city chargebacks increased by 17.2% over last year. Health care costs statewide are spiraling out of control due to Romneycare and Obamacare mandates. I stated this clearly at our May 22nd meeting and because of these increases I voted against the line-item for city chargebacks and the final school department budget which included the chargeback figure even though I fully supported the line-item operating budget of $72 million for reasons explained earlier.

The City of Methuen needs to plan for these future increases in health care expenses. In fiscal year 2017, the school department paid 50% of retiree health insurance, in fiscal year 2018 it will pay 75%, and in fiscal year 2019, the school district will pay 100%. As I have written before, the city needs to place restrictions on new retiree health insurance benefits. Many communities require that employees work for the city or town for 10 or 20 years before becoming eligible for retiree health insurance benefits. What happens of course is that public employees come to Methuen from other cities and towns and retire here thus collecting the health benefits. I have requested a list from City Hall of all of the years of service of current retirees so as to ascertain what our savings could be by doing this and how many people are included. I did so under the Massachusetts Public Records Act. I was told that compiling this information would cost about $650 that I would have to pay out of pocket. So, I still do not know how many of our current retirees have worked for the city for more than 10 years. It is ridiculous that this information is not readily available.

Finally, I am pleased to report that the school department is doing its part to try to control costs in the city. Other departments should follow suit and examine areas where cuts can be made so that spending can be brought under control. All of our departments have a crucial role to play in maintaining public safety and providing essential services, but these need to be done at a price that taxpayers can afford to pay. The City of Methuen cannot sustain its long-term operations by continuously passing off higher costs to homeowners. As a community we need to live within our means by controlling costs and plan for the future by replenishing the Stabilization Fund, controlling retiree health care expenses, and lowering property taxes on homeowners.

D.J. Deeb is a Methuen resident and member of the Methuen School Committee. Deeb is an Adjunct Professor of History/Government at Bunker Hill Community College and an Adjunct Political Science Instructor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Deeb also serves as Social Studies Department Chair at Notre Dame High School in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He is the author of Israel, Palestine, and the Quest for Middle East Peace (University Press, 2013) and The Collapse of Middle East Peace (IUniverse, 2003).