Essex, Manchester and the M-E School District Budget


To the Editor,

I was at a recent Manchester Club meeting and a prominent Townie asked me, as he always does: "How are things in the big city?" 

By this he meant Essex, where our family moved nearly 30 years ago.  Sarah and I grew up and lived our early adult lives in Manchester, and our feet have since been firmly planted in both towns.  We are thus attuned to the tenor of the inter-town relationship, which right now seems a bit frayed.  As if to illustrate, this particular Townie (who never fails to get to the point quickly) followed up with: "How come they're not supporting the schools over there?", referring to Essex's No vote on the override for the M-E School District budget.

I hope that some background and context will be helpful.  First of all, the School District has been enormously beneficial for the education of both towns' children.  And, Essex has been entirely supportive of the District's funding needs throughout its existence, including most recently the capital funding for the new Memorial Elementary School in Manchester.  Now, however, there is a sense of taxpayer fatigue in Essex, not strictly because of school funding needs, but, in my opinion, because of much longer and more generalized spending by the Town of Essex.  When we moved here in 1995, our annual property tax was about $2,700, this for middling-sized house with garage on a one-acre lot.  Since then, the Town has been making up for decades of deferred capital and systems improvements, including the school district, and also the sewer connection to Gloucester, renovation of Town Hall and the library, and new DPW and public safety buildings.  This is in fact a record to be proud of, and of course it has come at quite a cost.  Our tax bill is now four times (unadjusted) what it was in 1995, including a recent bump in our assessment of more than 15% that preceded the override request.

There are surely homeowners in Manchester who would love to have an $11,000 annual property tax bill, and who might feel that Essex of course had to undertake all these improvements, but the point is that this taxpayer fatigue has led many people to feel we should pump the brakes just a bit on an override for the budget item that already takes up well over 50% of the total Town budget.  It is legitimate to ask why substantial annual increases forecast well into the future should occur while enrollment has been falling, even while realizing that Essex's District funding apportionment has been rising in step with our rising share of the student population.  

The school budget was discussed at an Essex Select Board meeting two weeks ago, and Chris Wolf of the Finance Committee rose to support the full requested budget, stating that he was the only Committee member to do so.  I spoke with him afterwards and asked one question: did he think that the District had done everything it could to find efficiency and economy in the budget.  He answered Yes, and made several points to illustrate, including savings in the special education budget, staff paying a higher share for health insurance, and comparable per student costs against similar school systems.  I hope that this information will be better represented at upcoming meetings in Manchester and Essex, and also that District representatives will be fully prepared to answer the hard questions that are sure to come from the voters.

The MERSD was and is a great achievement for both towns.  The students and parents from both towns have made great contributions to its success and the value it brings to us.  My hope is first that our two legislatures (Town Meetings) will do the hard work with the School Board and other Town committees to get the budget right and sustain the District into the future; second, and most importantly, that we continue to respect each other and realize that we're all aiming for the same outcome: an excellent public school system.

Mike Dyer


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