Following Essex Vote, School Committee Faces Hard Choices


This week the Manchester Essex Regional School Committee (MERSD) met for the first time since Essex voters rejected a Proposition 2½ override to bridge the gap for Essex’s $9.3 million apportionment for the FY24 MERSD budget, setting off a domino-like series of hard choices and cuts.

ME School District Superintendent Pamela Beaudoin presented initial options to find the money that Essex voters failed to deliver at the ballot.  Beaudoin’s options included furthering teacher reductions—including by way of layoffs that would require notification by June 15 of this year—to 11.5 full-time teachers (comprised of 7.5 teachers in addition to four reductions in the district’s previously approved budget).  It also included significant cuts to arts education across the board; it recommended doubling the class size for middle school exploratory classes as well as eliminating several STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) classes at the high school.  Among these cuts would be the French program which under the recommendation would be entirely cut.  Starting next year, no MERSD student can start French, and those middle school students would migrate to Spanish next year.

It was hard medicine for the School Committee.

Ben Buttrick, who as chairman of the Essex Finance Committee oversaw negotiations with the School District and came to understand the fundamental challenges with budgeting, gave the School Committee advice.  He said in reconsidering the budget, there may be a tendency for people to dig in.  He encouraged they take a measured approach.

“The people of Essex have voted,” he said.  “Think carefully.”

But Manchester’s Sally Berkowitz, parent of two students in elementary and middle school, said the vote gave her “pause on how aligned we are as two communities.”

“Personally, I can’t imagine cutting any other services.  I believe it would be a detriment to our students.  I do not want to see additional cuts,” said Berkowitz.

Coincidentally, the meeting was packed with many student teams associated with ongoing programs like Math Club, DECA (marketing and entrepreneurship), Robotics Club, SCAR (diversity and engagement), and others who had been previously scheduled to present successes in their programs.  Besides parents in the audience, members of Essex’s Finance Committee, residents, and Manchester’s incoming School Committee member John Binieris were in attendance.

Diego Sanson, the School Committee’s student representative, said the prospects of cuts is impacting students. 

“If everyone is looking for a high-performance district,” Sanson asked, “the question I want to ask is, ‘Are you ok with seeing a district that is less than what is there now?’”

ME senior Alexander Wolf said that, to him, the district always seems to be reducing, or cutting programming for students, which is simple and wrong.

“I’m disappointed,” said Wolf.

This is the first in a series of meetings required to get to an approved school district budget in both towns.  Currently, the School Committee is in a 30-day window during which it will determine whether to reduce the FY24 budget or keep its original budget.  If the budget is reduced by the amount asked for in the override, nothing more is needed.  If not, the budget will have to again go before voters, first at a Special Town Meeting and then at the ballot in a special election. 

School Committee Chairman Theresa Whitman, who narrowly won reelection last week in Essex to a second term, said this upcoming exercise will be one of simple, hard choices.  Lowering the budget means the communities of Manchester and Essex are supporting lower services, and reduced educational programming.

Essex spends 50.56% of its annual budget, exclusive of debt, on education.  Essex’s share of the district budget—determined in part by enrollment—has been escalating in recent years because of the proportion of children from Manchester in the school district has been declining. 

Last week Essex voters were asked to support two overrides translating to about $600 in additional taxes per year per resident.  They approved a $56,186 for the town’s share of the Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School District’s FY24 budget but declined to support the larger, MERSD override.

Behind the squeeze this year was a fundamental decision—supported by both towns’ Select Boards and Finance Committees—to push for an override and “reset” dysfunction in district budgeting, specifically stopping the school district’s routine use of reserve funds for operations, a practice that is discouraged by public finance professionals.  It’s also a tack adopted as the district heads into planning for the construction in several years of a new Essex Elementary School, which will require borrowing that could be expensive if the district’s bond rating is dinged based on its reserves formula.

Antonella Munez, a resident of Essex said she hadn’t planned on speaking publicly, but she felt compelled to defend Essex voters and their decision to not support the override.

“Some of us that may not have wanted to the override to pass, but it doesn’t mean we don’t support the schools,” she said.  “I’ve tried to understand this budget, and it’s really difficult.  It’s not a fight.  We don’t want to make sweeping cuts.”

On Tuesday, one of the newest School Committee members who ran on bringing financial rigor to budgeting, Anna Lin Mitchell, suggested Beaudoin’s recommended cuts went too far, and wondered if a compromise was possible by reducing some costs while also dipping into reserves.  Another option would be lowering the ask and returning to Essex voters, she said.  In either case, she said, the district could buy another year to look fresh at budgeting strategies.

But, said others, bringing Essex to a 2.5% increase year-over-year, which is what Essex town officials are demanding, the district would have to make cuts every year to make a 1% overall.  Given that salaries, health care, transportation, and special education all grow at a higher rate, the choices will be brutal.  In order to do this next year, the district would need to cut an additional $900,000 from the budget.

The School Committee will hold a public hearing next Tuesday, May 23 in a joint meeting with the Essex Board of Selectmen.  That meeting will include two new faces, Essex’s newest BOS member, Alva Ingaharro and Manchester’s newest School Committee member, John Binieris.


me school district, diego sanson, essex board of selectmen, public finance professionals, sally berkowitz, alexander wolf, ben buttrick, robotics club, anna lin mitchell, manchester essex regional school committee, theresa whitman, essex north shore agricultural and technical school district, alva ingaharro, essex elementary school, antonella munez, special town, pamela beaudoin, school committee, essex, massachusetts