A Final MERSD District Budget, And A Compromise


The ME Regional School Committee approved a final FY23 district budget Tuesday, ending a long and, at times, painful process to come in under the annual spending cap set by Manchester and Essex and giving the Town of Essex breathing room this year to handle student enrollment trends that are driving big escalations in that town’s share of the budget.

After nearly four hours, the committee approved a FY23 MERSD budget of $28,925,987, representing a $1.13 million gap from last year’s services and coming in under the district’s 3.5% target cap in increased spending over the previous year.  This includes $460,000 cuts in programs and services and $520,000 coming from tapping district reserve funds.  

Before getting into the hard facts, two voices spoke about reconciliation, and compromise.  First, Committee Chair Sarah Wolf said collaboration was the only way to effectively address both the financial challenges facing the Town of Essex as well as the district as a whole.  Then, Ben Buttrick, Essex FinCom chair said Essex was willing to soften and meet the district in the middle.

“We’re struggling with an Essex apportionment issue, and it’s not likely to go away,” he said.  

But “we have to address the structural issues of the district,” he continued.  “That means getting to an override (in 2023), then onto long term planning.”

Cuts ranged from restructuring existing services (like psychology services and administrative moves) to fundamental changes to programs ($65,000 to remove early foreign language classes, for instance), reduced operational spending ($70,000 cuts in bussing) and delaying (again) upgrades to athletic fields.   

“It’s not easy no matter where we land,” said MERSD Superintendent Pamela Beaudoin.  “We’re trying to take a multi-year look.”

Members of the public have been voicing opposition to the cuts for months, and on Tuesday, a lot of attention went to pulling repairs of the high school turf, again.  Not that it made a difference to the final budget.  

“When are we going to make that money up,” asked Maureen Twombly, a parent who said deferring field maintenance is dangerous and unwise.  She read a letter from ME freshman Sammy Bothwell, who wrote that it’s “dangerous” to use the field.  

Senior athlete AJ Pallazola told the committee he’s sprained his ankle on the turf, twice.  

Hadley Levendusky, junior and captain of the field hockey team, said the turf is “unsafe for all athletes.”  

Wrede Charlton, senior and lacrosse captain said it’s “a really big hazard.”  She also read a letter, from lacrosse coach Nan Gorton, who wrote that, “ours is one of the worst” field in the league.  

“Please take time to walk the field,” wrote Gorton.  “And then walk Ipswich, Reading or other fields.”

All told, the approved budget comes in at 2.89% over FY22, a win from the district’s long-held goal of the 3.5% cap.  Essex’s apportionment under the finalized budget is 4.39, Manchester’s is 2.05%.

Approval was nearly unanimous.

The vote capped nearly a year of work between Essex’s FinCom, BOS and the district to get on the same page, and Tuesday’s tone was dramatically improved from last June when the FinCom surprised everyone at Town Meeting, where many FinCom members refused to support the district budget.  

Despite the longtime goal set by both towns for a “+3.5%” budget each year, last fall Essex pointed to its ballooning share of the district apportionment, which last year was up 3.96%.  This year the town was looking at a bump of between 3.79% under the most extreme budget cuts and 4.99% under the best scenario.   (Manchester’s share would have been 1.45% to 2.65%, respectively.)

Buttrick said Essex is struggling to close its own budget gap of $330,000 and the year-to-year trends in the town’s district apportionment formula, which leans heavily on student enrollment, won’t be easing anytime soon.  The number of Essex students in the district is growing moderately, but the apportionment spikes of the last three years have been driven by Manchester’s decreasing number of students.  Manchester’s town population is aging, quickly.  Further, anecdotal accounts say MBTS families opted for private schools during COVID, where in-person schooling continued.

Last fall, Essex established a rainy-day fund of $50,000 to mitigate the swings in its school district apportionment.  Buttrick said the town will ask voters this spring to use that money at May’s Town Meeting.  Also, at a meeting Monday, the Essex BOS got good news from the FinCom on items like the town’s health insurance rate for the year, helping to close the gap further.  

In the end, the Essex FinCom was able to do its own compromising, and said it wanted to meet the School Committee halfway.

But Committee member Christopher Reed said he is concerned about short term cuts that undermine long term health of the district, starting with unique and power programs like early language that it tied to AP success later in high school.  He also opined on the costly dangers of dipping into reserve funds that can drive a drop in the district’s bond rating, especially as the towns face building a new Elementary School in Essex.  

“We’re shooting ourselves in the foot,” he said, “costing the district millions of dollars down the road in increased bond costs from drawing down our reserves.”

Everyone Monday acknowledged there is a fundamental, long term structural challenge with district budgeting that must be addressed, and that will start next year when everyone anticipates a Proposition 2 ½ override at Town Meeting to right the ship.  Since FY 18 (not including the FY23 budget), the district has cut $2.792 million by eliminating 5.5 full time teachers, eliminating full day pre-K on Wednesdays, retirement offsets, eliminating the crossing guard fund, eliminating half of summer and overtime work, and implementing an across-the-board hiring freeze, among others.

Sarah Wolf said cobbling a deal together with Essex was hard, but she understands the challenge and said a healthy relationship between the towns and the district is worth fighting for.  

“The fight starts here,” agreed Annie Cameron, an Essex resident who served on the School Committee for decades, including during regionalization.  “We need to get to consensus and have peaceful Town Meetings.”

Cameron placed responsibility for some of the district’s financial predicament with the state, which had dragged its feet on long-promised funding going back decades. 

“It’s been too long …  The district is constantly fighting for resources,” she said.

Committee member Ken Warnock said the district has had to make cuts every year since he joined the committee six years ago.  The district, he said, has an “educational responsibility, not just the fiscal responsibility.”  Nevertheless, Warnock said the compromise was worth supporting.

“We have to have some sort of correction next year,” said Committee Member Theresa Whitman, who is also a member of the collaboration group with the BOS and FinComs of both towns.  “Essex will have a hard time stomaching that.  But the tone difference gives me confidence that we can do it.”

What has changed, beside a new sense of cooperation? 

“Now there is strategy involved,” she said.

The next School Committee will be at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 15. 

sarah wolf, me regional school committee, manchester, essex, fincom, wrede charlton, aj pallazola, christopher reed, pamela beaudoin, hadley levendusky, ben buttrick, sammy bothwell, maureen twombly, elementary school, ken warnock, annie cameron, theresa whitman, nan gorton, mersd superintendent, pallazola, school budget