Opinion: Vote no on Question 1, City must address core education problems first

By Sumukh Tendulkar

The operating override requested by Mayor Fuller is a poorly conceived solution to a problem of Newton city government’s own creation.  While I volunteered in favor of the last override campaign, I will be voting “no” on the operating override (“OO”) question this time due to the City’s continuing failure to address core, underlying problems, and deprive our kids of the education they deserve.  I will however vote “yes” on the Countryside and Franklin Debt Exclusions.

NPS faces two fundamental problems: 1) unsustainable budget growth has resulted in annual cuts to in-class and extracurricular programing, and 2) parental lack of confidence in the quality of education. While superficially distinct, these two problems are inextricably linked – budgeting failures and misplaced priorities have eroded educational quality, leading to falling rankings, MCAS and AP scores near the bottom among peer communities, and dropping enrollment. The OO will not address either of these critical issues, and instead will likely make them worse.  

Unsustainable Budgets: The OO does nothing to address structural flaws with the NPS budget and prioritization.  Current NPS budget growth exceeds a sustainable rate of 3.5%. In recent years this has resulted in deferred building maintenance and cuts to programming. The FY23-24 budget will increase by 6.8%+ just to maintain the status quo, meaning NPS will still have a gap even if the OO passes.  That gap will expand over time, reaching as high as $60-100M+ over the next five years even before NPS negotiates new contracts with various unions.

Despite the continuing budget gap, the mayor has vowed no new override for at least five years, should this OO pass.

The only way NPS can close a budget gap of this size is with a fundamental re-assessment of the budget and a clear vision of academics at NPS with associated ranked spending priorities.  Approving the OO at this time, without the analysis and justification,  essentially guarantees deeper cuts to school programming, significantly larger class sizes or both, leaving us in a worse situation.

Parent and Student loss of confidence: The budget deficit will also get worse as more and more parents pull their kids out of schools and Newton loses its long-standing reputation for educational excellence.  According to an NPS-sponsored survey, more than two-thirds of parents (69% of n=1,562) and more than 60% of high school students (66 of n=104) do not believe NPS is headed in the right direction.  Parental feedback clearly shows erosion of academic offering is a major cause for concern. 

For instance, 8th grade Honors Math was eliminated (advanced students are now sent online). Additionally, many High School classes spanning different levels (Honors/AP, ACP etc.) are combined into a single, multi-level course.  NPS took this huge leap at students’  expense and only recently have  faculty acknowledged the multi-level class was far from perfect and the administration has belatedly admitted multi-level classes are untested and the repercussions are unknown.  One courageous student has also expressed concern about the new High School structure to the School Committee, which was essentially ignored. This is part of a trend of NPS to disregard differing parental and student opinions.  

The acting School Superintent Dire warnings of deep cuts should the OO fail are themselves overblown. Newton has more than sufficient resources to overcome any budget shortfall in the short term. Between ARPA funds, Free Cash, Overlay Fund, and funding Pensions to state mandated timelines itself make $140M+ available to the mayor. 

A more thoughtful approach: NPS parents are among the most educated and professionally diverse anywhere in the country, and have expertise and desire to participate in identifying practical, affordable solutions as a part of an open Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC). A BRC should be formed to define academic excellence at NPS, and the budget required for it. Such an exercise will bring people together, and form an analytical and data-oriented basis for building a budget that reflects the community’s priorities.  At that point, if an operating override is needed to fund NPS in line with community demands, the rationale and cost will be clear and will have been developed with the community.  The last BRC presented its conclusions in only 4 months, a similar exercise could produce results in a reasonable timeframe.

The current proposed operating override will send NPS further down a crumbling road for another five years. Instead, the City should fund any current gap while NPS engages experts under a BRC umbrella to establish goals and metrics for the longer term so that the actual budget for meeting those goals can be developed and funded. I will proudly advocate for any package that outlines a clear vision and a plan to meet educational needs of all. Until that time, please join me in voting no on the Operating Override to send the administration back to the drawing board instead of accepting a sub-par outcome.

Sources: https://bit.ly/NBOp-Ed contains all sources.

Sumukh Tendulkar, a Newton resident for 14 years, is the parent of two NPS students: one graduate and a current middle school student.