Promises, skepticism that override will fix schools’ structural deficit

Of the $15 million in total proposed override tax increases on the ballot next week, the largest chunk — $4.5 million – would go toward the overall Newton Public Schools budget. That figure is about half of the $9.2 million operating override, one of three proposed tax increases residents will vote on next Tuesday.

School officials are still creating their budget for the coming year but say right now they’re likely $6 million short. At a School Committee meeting on March 1, Acting Superintendent Kathleen Smith said the override increase was needed to avoid cuts next year, and that it would help NPS move past the “structural deficit” where its expenses outpace budget allocations.

“If we had that infusion of $4.5 million there would be somewhat of a deficit but we are very, very confident that we would be able to look at efficiencies and get to the point where not only do we stabilize the budget, but look at the structural deficit going forward,” Smith said.

But both the head of the Newton Teachers Association, which is backing all three overrides, and a former School Committee member who has long spoken out about the structural deficit said there were bigger issues at play.

“Prop 2.5 is the larger issue,” Mike Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association, told the Beacon. “The 2.5 percent cap really hurts districts like Newton where they rely almost exclusively on property tax revenue. That’s why we need regular overrides.”

”An override will not by itself solve a structural deficit,” said former School Committee chair Matt Hills, who is a board member of the Beacon. “The only way to solve a structural deficit is to either increase the rate of growth in NPS funding from the city every year—which is difficult given the city’s own structural deficit– or for the School Committee to ensure that its costs grow in line with revenue.”

Future funding

Voters will weigh in on three proposed tax increases next week – $3.5 million for construction at the Franklin School, $2.3 million for work at the Countryside School and $9.2 million for the city’s operating budget. The first two would add $183 to the median yearly tax bill by 2030, while the operating override would add $290 to the median yearly tax bill starting next year.

About half of the operating override increase would go to city services, like fixing roads and staffing the new Senior Center. But Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said $4.5 million will go directly to NPS, which officials say is currently facing a $6 million shortfall in the 2023-2024 budget.

Some of that gap is due to increased costs, including gas utilities going up by $1.1 million and a new formula for reimbursing out-of-district tuition for special needs students adding $1.8 million to that line item. At the March 1 meeting, school officials said they were looking at numerous cuts if the override did not pass, including $1.2 million in elementary classroom reductions, $1 million in middle school reductions and more than $700,000 in high school reductions.

That would lead to numerous classrooms in grades 2 through 5 seeing class sizes of 29 students, team sizes of up to 100 students at the middle schools and more classes of greater than 25 students at the high schools, according to Smith’s presentation at last week’s School Committee meeting. Smith said officials were also weighing increasing fees for bus transportation, sports and other activities.

“The recommendations this evening are not recommendations we want to make for the most part,” Smith said. “I remain optimistic that with additional funding we can work to close a structural deficit and support a more stable budget that our district needs.”

Structural issues

The school budget is generally at least half of the city’s total budget — last year’s NPS budget of $262 million was 55 percent of the total $490 million overall. Over the past several years, Fuller has increased the school budget by 3.5 percent every year.

But Hills said NPS’ expenses – in particular, the current contract with the NTA – are growing faster than that allocation. Hills made a presentation to city officials and residents in early 2020, after the contract was approved at the end of 2019, and has consistently pointed to the contract as driving the deficit.

“We have a large structural deficit in the NPS operating budget in large part because of decisions made by the School Committee three years ago with respect to compensation costs, which is almost 90 percent of the total NPS budget,” Hills said. “The basic problem was leadership agreed to cost changes that were well in excess of revenue increases, which created a large structural deficit.  It’s just simple math.”

The contract paid teachers at the top level of the pay scale a total cost-of-living increase of 11.75 percent staggered over four years, while other teachers saw a total COLA increase of 10.25 percent over that time. Teachers also receive yearly salary increases based on longevity. Zilles said the COLA increases were necessary to pay teachers and other educators in line with other districts so Newton can retain them.

“Is compensation for educators the source of the structural deficit? My answer is no,” Zilles said. “To think you could fund the schools by not paying teachers, you’re effectively asking teachers to subsidize the schools. We’re not going to do that.”

Zilles also pointed to a general increase in NPS staff driving salary costs as well as contractual raises. The number of NPS full-time employees has increased from 2,020 full-time employees in 2015 to 2,146 FTEs last year, and the number of student services FTEs went up from 765.5 to 903 during that time. School officials have said more aides and support staff are needed to help students in the wake of the pandemic.

“At this moment in time, we need to come together to support this generation of students whose educational journey was interrupted,” Smith said at the School Committee meeting last week.

And even though Newton is seeing a decline in enrollment in the lower grades, with elementary enrollment projected to decline by 8 percent from now to 2027, Zilles said that did not correspond to reducing educators in order to save money.

“Declining enrollment does not reduce expenses that much, certainly not enough to make up for other rising costs,” Zilles said. “It costs the same to run two classes of 20 students as it two classes of 22 students.”

Next contract?

But with personnel costs growing from 82 percent of the budget to 89 percent of the budget over the past decade, Hills – who said he was not taking a public position on any of the overrides — said an operating override would only postpone reckoning with the real problem.

“A structural deficit means costs are growing faster than revenue and an operating override does not resolve that – there’s a one-time injection of cash to plug the deficit hole and under Prop 2 ½ that additional funding will grow at 2.5 percent annually,” Hills said. “If we put a whole chunk of money in to fill the deficit, all you’re going to do is be put in the exact same situation in the following year if you don’t increase the rate of revenue growth or decrease the rate of cost.” 

The current NTA contract expires in August of this year, and NTA members and School Committee members are already working to negotiate the next contract. Hills said that would determine if an override would successfully address the school budget.

“If the operating override passes, a significant part of the NPS deficit will be funded for next year, but that only solves the structural deficit problem if the School Committee doesn’t make the same financially unsustainable decisions they made last time, which is agreeing to cost increases well beyond their revenue allocation from the city,” Hills said.

Zilles said if the operating override does not pass, the schools will see an immediate downturn – and without more funding, more overrides would be necessary to maintain expectations parents have for NPS.

“If these are the schools they want, there have to be regular overrides,” Zilles said.

Dan Atkinson can be reached at