By: DJ Deeb – June, 2018
The Methuen School Committee held a budget workshop meeting on Tuesday, May 29, 2018 to discuss the upcoming Fiscal Year 2019 budget. In April, the School Committee voted to request that the Mayor and School Committee approve a budget of $82.5 million, a nearly 14% increase over last year’s budget of $72 million. This comes after years of not filling positions through attrition as enrollment numbers continue to climb and Special Education mandated costs continue to soar. I would have supported an increase in the budget, but 14% was just too high. At the same time, spending on other city departments continues to spiral out of control while the School Department remains underfunded. City leaders must demonstrate fiscal responsibility to help offset state-mandated school expenses.
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. The Mayor suggested at the May 29th meeting that City officials may want to consider a Proposition 2.5 Override. I reject calls for a Proposition 2.5 override. Our residents cannot afford this. We need a fairer allocation of resources within our current budget. It’s time for shared fiscal responsibility. Our schools should not have to face cuts every year while the City continues to add other positions to the budget.
Last year, in FY 2018, the School Department was the only major department in the City to reduce its operating budget. It cut its operating expenses by 2 percent. 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).
The number of students enrolled in Methuen Public Schools is climbing and the number of students in need of special services is also increasing significantly. The number of students with disabilities has increased from 15.3% in 2005 to almost 18% in 2018. The Mayor has proposed a $76 million budget, but with rising enrollments, approximately $78 million will be needed to level-fund services. This means no new positions will be added. Less than that amount means cutting services, imposing user fees, and layoffs of teachers and school personnel. If the schools had received 3% annual increases like other city departments over the past 5 years the FY 2019 budget would be $78.7 million. In considering the Methuen Schools Budget, the following facts taken from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education regarding Methuen Schools should be noted:
* Bottom 15% of districts for total per pupil expenditure
* Bottom 9% of districts for per pupil expenditure for administration
* Bottom 5% for per pupil expenditure for instructional materials, equipment, and technology
All things considered, the teachers and support staff are doing an excellent job educating and providing quality services to the students of Methuen Public Schools without user fees and bus fees. Not many surrounding districts can brag about the latter. Let’s keep it that way since our property values are largely determined by the desirability of our schools.
Methuen certainly does not have a problem generating revenue from property taxes. In FY 2014, $71,289,005 was seen. In FY 2015, the City raised $75,096,643. Finally, in FY 2016, the last year for which data is fully available, the City generated $79,380,338. This amounts to an increase of 5.4 percent and 5.7 percent respectively. These are the results of rising property values and assessments.
Many homeowners have been rightly complaining about the increases to their residential property tax bills. In Methuen, the residential tax rate was lowered to $14.27 per $1,000 assessed value for 2018 from $14.65 per $1,000 assessed value in 2017, but the average value of a single-family home increased by 6 percent. The average homeowner can expect to pay over $150 more per year in taxes. This increase is much higher for many who have homes valued at over $220,000. A Proposition 2.5 override would adversely impact many seniors, new families, and low-income residents.
There is much to be disappointed about in the Mayor’s proposed FY 2019 budget for the City. First off, there are an abundance of raises for city workers contained in the budget proposal. Spending on Police and Fire departments are out of control. The Mayor’s proposed budget gives the Fire Department a new position of Municipal Communications Officer at over $65,000 per year. This is just another waste of taxpayer dollars just like the two current social media coordinators for the Police Department that are costing taxpayers over $140,000 per year.
Worse yet, the Mayor’s budget creates two new added positions for the Mayor’s Office, an Executive Assistant to the Mayor at a cost of $112,500 per year, and an Administrative Assistant to the Mayor at a cost of $56,100 per year. The Mayor currently has a chief of staff, executive secretary, and head clerk. How many positions do we really need?
In my February and March columns, I outlined many suggestions for cuts in City spending. 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. The School Department has been very conservative over the last 5 years. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the City. I suggested a freeze on all new city positions until the budget spending is brought under control two years ago and I repeat that call today.
I urge Mayor Jim Jajuga and the members of the Methuen City Council to do better! It is time to stop kicking the can down the road. The Mayor’s budget in its current June 1st form should be rejected by the City Council. We need a fairer allocation of resources within our current budget. It’s time for shared sacrifice and fiscal responsibility. Our schools should not have to face cuts every year while the City continues to add other positions to the budget. City leaders must demonstrate fiscal responsibility to help offset state-mandated school expenses. It is time to provide adequate funding for our schools using our current revenue sources. A Proposition 2.5 override is not an option.
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).