Methuen Schools, City Must Institute Hiring Freeze

By DJ Deeb – Dec. 2018

Earlier this year (in the February, March, and April 2018 Valley Patriot editions) I outlined many suggestions for cuts in spending for the City of Methuen. Last year, the City filled 13 non-civil service municipal positions, hired 10 new firefighters and 3 reserve firefighters, hired 3 new police officers and 9 reserve officers.

There were 23 new hires in FY 2016 and 26 new hires in FY 2017.

In addition, the number of current and former employees on the city health insurance plan swelled from 1,544 in FY 2016 to about 1,601 in 2018. Some of these positions were certainly needed given the City’s population growth but local government spending is still excessive. I suggested a freeze on all new city positions until spending is brought under control two years ago and I repeat that call today. The School Department has actually reduced the number of positions over last 5 years, excluding grant-funded positions. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the City.

Last year, in FY 2018, the School Department was the only major department in the City to reduce its operating budget.

With the increase in enrollments and rising cost of special education services this caused a deficit which then-Superintendent Judy Scannell warned the then-City Council would likely happen. In contrast, the Police Department saw an increase of 3.2 percent (9 percent in FY 2017), the Fire Department received an increase of 1.5 percent (9 percent in FY 2017), and the Department of Public Works (DPW) saw an increase of 5 percent (6.5 percent in FY 2017). City spending increases have averaged 3% annually for the last 10 years. In contrast, the School Department has increased only 2.2% annually over the past 10 years. The School Department has made numerous cuts while the City continues to add positions to the budget and give out huge raises.

Unlike the City, the School Department instituted a hiring freeze on all new positions two years ago. At that time, I suggested a freeze on all new city positions until budget spending is brought under control and I repeat that call today. Last month I sought to expand the hiring freeze on the School Department to all existing positions and contract renewals. My Motion was tabled until the December 10th school committee meeting. I call on my colleagues to support this fiscally responsible move and I also call on the members of the Methuen City Council to follow suit with positions in the City as they become vacant.

The Motion that I brought forward in November reads: To institute a hiring freeze on any and all positions and contract extensions/renewals in the Methuen Public Schools until further notice or except by a vote of the School Committee. I am willing to accept a friendly amendment to this motion to exempt classroom teachers, but my reason for bringing this forward is that more than 20 positions became vacant in September and October.

Most of these positions were administrative or support staff. With the current fiscal crisis this is a perfect time to examine the need for each and every internal position that becomes available without causing anyone to lose their jobs. Every non-teaching position that becomes available in Methuen Public Schools should have to be justified to the entire school committee and the community. The City should be doing the same with any positions that become vacant across the City. Please reach out to the members of the Methuen School Committee and tell them that you support this Motion to institute a complete hiring freeze on non-teaching positions in Methuen Public Schools.

There are plenty of cuts that can be made in the City of Methuen given the current budget crisis. Current city employees have a 62/38 split for their health insurance while retirees enjoy an 80/20 split for the same health insurance. I am certainly not looking to take away benefits promised to our current retirees, but this benefit needs to be changed for future retirees. Retiree health insurance benefits are currently costing the City over $1 Million annually.

Longevity benefits cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Longevity needs to be grandfathered, capped, and negotiated out of future contracts as a benefit for new employees. Many cities and towns in the Commonwealth have already eliminated this costly expense for new hires and Methuen should do the same.

Let’s examine the Department of Economic and Community Development: We have a Director who makes $112,000 per year, an Assistant Director of Planning who makes $88,000 per year, an Assistant Director of Community Development who makes $71,000 per year, a Community Development Secretary, a Community Development Confidential Secretary, a Head Clerk, a senior Planner, and an Environmental Planner (Position created in 2017). Do we really need all of these positions? The time has come to look seriously at consolidation.

Now, let’s turn to the Police Department. Last year the Police went from 2 captains to 5 captains in addition to the numerous other promotions for a Department that has just 71 patrolmen.

The fact remains that some neighboring communities, including North Andover, do not have police captains. We do not need them either and certainly not at the salaries that they are demanding.

Under the currently-funded MOU the police captains are earning base salaries of $188,206. This is ridiculous! We could add 3 patrolmen for each captain that is eliminated and we certainly should look at adding more patrolmen to help the City of Methuen address crime rates. As I wrote about last month, Councilor Steve Saba proposed a reorganization that would have eliminated the captain positions and maintained a necessary number of police patrolmen to keep our streets and City safe. Unfortunately, a majority of the City Council (excluding Councilors Jen Kannan and Lynn Vidler who recused themselves from the votes due to family conflicts) have been complacent in supporting the Memorandum of Understanding [MOU] that has resulted in 24% and 18% raises for five Methuen Police captains while resulting in a $1.8 Million deficit for the Methuen Police Department. The Council voted 5-2 against reorganizing the Police Department and eliminating the captains. This was disgraceful and fiscally irresponsible.

Once again, please contact members of the Methuen School Committee and tell them that you support my Motion to institute a complete hiring freeze on non-teaching positions in Methuen Public Schools. Also, be sure to let members of the City Council know that they should be doing the same in the City.

On another note, I want to wish all of my readers in the community a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year in the weeks to come. Happy Holidays!

D.J. Deeb is a Methuen resident and Secretary 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).