School officials: Override would prevent teacher cuts

School officials made an urgent plea Monday for Newton voters to approve a tax increase that would send $4.5 million to the schools – promising that they would use the funds to build a “sustainable” budget and warning that without more money the district could see across-the-board budget cuts and the potential reduction of 40 to 50 educator positions.

But even if the override passes on March 14, the schools are facing a $2 million – $4 million deficit, school officials told the School Committee, and some parents said they were skeptical that the influx of funds would change larger problems with the school budget.

“I don’t want to throw good money after bad money. Even with the override NPS budgets are not sustainable,” said Waban parent Sumukh Tendulkar.

The presentation at Monday’s School Committee meeting, from Interim Superintendent Kathleen Smith and school CFO Liam Hurley, showed projections for the upcoming school budget with and without money from a proposed override. The Fuller administration is proposing a $9.2 million override for the city’s operating expenses and has promised $4.5 million of that will go to schools, but the override must be approved via ballot question. In separate ballot questions, residents will also vote on whether to dedicate $2.3 million annually to renovate the Countryside School and $3.5 million annually to renovate the Franklin School .

Those two measures would raise taxes for 30 years and then be taken off the books, but the operating override would raise taxes permanently. School administration and elected officials say that money is needed to maintain school services, and are calling for voters to approve the funds.

“Most people can conceptualize new and renovated schools, the operating funds have folks a little nervous. Part of this is an inability to see those funds put to good use because the good use is not exciting, it’s not being able to do all these wonderful new things. It’s being able to maintain a level of service,” School Committee Chair Tamika Olszewski told the Beacon.

“As far as convincing the voters, we understand for people it’s a sacrifice, we want people to know we’ll be good stewards of their dollars,” Interim Superintendent Kathleen Smith told the Beacon. “This generation of students deserves us to do everything to support them.”

Painful predictions

The approval process for the school budget usually begins later in the year, after March 14 when the override is scheduled for a vote. Smith and Hurley said they are currently working on two budgets, one that includes the extra $4.5 million and one that does not.

Hurley said the district is expecting a regular increase to its budget of 3.5 percent from city officials – but even if the override is passed, the schools are facing a deficit of $2 million to $4 million, Hurley said. Numerous costs increased more than expected, including gas utilities rising by $1.1 million and the cost of out-of-district tuition for students with special needs skyrocketing by $1.8 million after state officials changed reimbursement rates for schools across Massachusetts, he said. Hurley said officials would look to increase fees slightly and make small targeted cuts to fill the gap if the override passes.

But if the override fails, the deficit climbs to $6 million to $8 million, Hurley said. If that happens, he said officials will look at significantly raising fees and cutting expenses to make up the gap. They’ll start with non-personnel expenses like transportation, Hurley said, pointing out that while the state requires districts to provide bus service to elementary school students who live more than two miles away from school, Newton could potentially cut bus service or increase fees for children who live closer to their school buildings.

“This is important, I’m sure, to families — look at your roads, your crossroads, this is a metropolitan very busy city, and our children’s safety is of the utmost importance and a priority to us,” Smith said at the School Committee meeting, later telling the Beacon that she wasn’t saying it would be more dangerous for students to go to school “There would be a real possibility for increased fees. There could be a modest increase if the override passes. If it doesn’t pass, a larger increase is something we’d have to take a look at.”

While officials would look for non-personnel cuts first, they could ultimately cut 40 to 50 educator positions to balance the budget, Smith said.

“We try to stay away from the classroom because of that impact. That’s across the board, it impacts everything that you can to balance the budget, but in the end when you have to make up a $6 million to $8 million budget you will be impacting staff,” Smith told School Committee members.

Last year, school officials relied on $4.5 million in one-time funding – including $2.5 million in ARPA money – to balance the budget, and those funds are no longer available, Smith said. She said the $4.5 million promised in the override is needed to keep class sizes and programming at their current levels, but that it would also help officials eliminate the “structural deficit” of not having enough money to pay for costs, and that the goal of the budget was to “maintain the current level of service provided to students and build a sustainable budget over time.”

The wrong direction?

But Tendulkar said that goal was unrealistic. He said salaries – which account for 72 percent of the budget, according to Monday’s budget presentation – are continuing to grow at a rate higher than the 3.5 percent increase the city allots to the schools for a yearly budget increase, and that the override would just be a bandage on a larger problem.

“We have a structural issue we’re not addressing, kicking the can down the road from one year to the next,” Tendulkar said. “This doesn’t improve NPS, it tries to get back to the status quo but not really.”

Tendulkar said he is not part of the official anti-override campaign and he volunteered with the pro-override campaign in 2013. While one of his children has since graduated, another is still in the schools and Tendulkar said officials haven’t responded to parents’ concerns, citing a 2022 poll by Hazard Young Attea Associates conducted for NPS where only 31 percent of 1,562 parents surveyed believed the district is heading in the right direction.

“They haven’t even acknowledged the problem is parents don’t agree with where the schools are headed and don’t believe they’re fiscally responsible,” Tendulkar said. “Stepping on the gas when the car is heading in the wrong direction is not the way to go.”

Smith said officials will work to find ways to make the school budget sustainable going forward, including looking at the “possibility of combination” of the Underwood and Ward schools because of decline in enrollments. But the override is needed now and has been needed for some time, Olszewski said.

“The need for an override has been anticipated for a number of years, the general sense is that our budget needs help to help realize it, with expenses that accelerate at a faster rate than the budget increase year over year,” she said.

Resolution to endorse

At Monday’s School Committee meeting, Olszewski said she would ask the other committee members to adopt a resolution supporting the override at the group’s next meeting on Feb. 6. The School Committee is not allowed to endorse candidates in an election but can make endorsements for ballot questions, although it did not do so during the 2013 override.

Olszewski said adopting the resolution would show voters that the committee would “take this seriously” and use funds from the tax increase wisely.

“We understand this is a suboptimal time to ask voters to increase their taxes … in recognition of that it’s important for the elected body that is the overseer of the budget, that we have some type of stake, that we very clearly articulate that these funds are not only needed but we’ll be good stewards of those funds going forward, they’ll be used in a sustainable way,” Olszewski said. “This is a pocket of funds that residents, if they vote in favor of the override, are offering us and it’s our job to be really good stewards of those funds. This is one way to demonstrate that we take this seriously.”

Tendulkar said he was fine with individual School Committee members endorsing the override but thought the resolution could wind up creating more discord, and he urged members to abstain.

“What you do as a member is up to you but what you do as a body represents what people in Newton are proud of, like it or not these issues end up being very divisive,” Tendulkar said.