School Committee Faces Protest to Cuts in FY24 Budget


Hundreds of people packed into the Manchester Essex High School cafeteria Tuesday as the regional school district committee faced hard program choices following a rejection by Essex voters two weeks ago of a $289K Proposition 2½ override that would have fully funded its share of a $29.75 million FY24 district budget.

ME Regional School Committee (MERSD), the Manchester and Essex Select Boards and members of both towns’ Finance Committees entered a room filled with approximately 300 parents, students, and teachers pleading them not to cut into the arts, language (specifically French), and STEM programs they say make MERSD schools one of the best in the state.

“It’s our job as citizens to support the future,” said Bruce Shaw, an Essex resident who supports the original district budget.  

The district is currently in a 30-day window to produce a new final FY24 budget or make $781K in budget cuts to meet the spending level accepted by Essex before the override.  The School Committee will make a final recommendation on June 6.  

A parade of students holding signs to support targeted programs lined the cafeteria.  There were children from all grades (one sign from an Essex elementary kindergartener read, “I will never get to experience the programs that get cut”).  Alumna, like 2022 graduate Charlie Weld, said she was admitted to the elite Berklee School of Music after learning music only in public school.  (“Think of me a D1 music student,” she joked, referring to successful college sports recruits).  There were teachers who said cuts to arts, language and STEM programs would devastate the quality of local education.

“This cut will impact the culture of our entire school,” said Michelle Magana, head of the MERSD world languages department.

“The simple truth is, we cannot teach classes of 30 the same way we teach a class of 15,” said Caroline Coshow, a 17-year French teacher. 

“Our students deserve better,” said Doris-Ann Vosseler, world languages teacher.

ME School District Superintendent Pamela Beaudoin said in the district’s final FY24 budget was a responsible one with “level services” that supported optimal class sizes, course offerings and services.  That budget—ultimately rejected by Essex—was 2.85% higher than the FY23 budget, and she said it is within those of comparable districts.

“We need to find a long-term solution, because it’s not a cycle that is good for the school or the students,” said Beaudoin, who added that communication between the district and the towns has broken down in recent years.

In Essex, where student enrollment is becoming an increasing portion of the overall district, the annual escalations in the town’s apportionment of the budget have been escalating disproportionately (upwards of 5%) because of the proportion of children from Manchester in the school district has been declining.  Essex’s FY24 district apportionment is approximately $9.3 million and 48.7% of the town’s budget, exclusive of debt, is spent annually on MERSD costs. 

Behind the move to force an override this year was a need to “reset” dysfunction in district budgeting, specifically to stop the school district’s use of reserve funds for operations every year.  With the rejection by Essex voters, the School Committee now faces three options before June 4.  First, do nothing, and keep the same level services budget accepted by Manchester and return it for consideration to Essex voters at a June Special Town Meeting and at the ballot.  

The second option would cut the full $781K and live within the lower budget approved by Essex at its Annual Town Meeting in April.  The message from the school committee and administration on how to do this was clear:  the district is no longer in the realm of finding efficiencies.  It would have to eliminate programs and staff.

The recommendation being considered would include 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.  

The cuts also feature elimination of the district’s widely admired French program.  Under the recommended new FY24 MERSD budget, starting next year, no MERSD student can start French, and students in middle school and higher studying French would have to migrate to Spanish next year. 

These cuts and layoffs are what many at Tuesday’s public hearing were fighting to stave off.  

The third option is cobbling together a compromise budget, and exploring compromise methods of funding.  

Some—including those committee members who ran on bringing fiscal hawkishness to the district—say the district should tap its reserve funds for operating expenses to retain jobs and services.  They recommended looking at cuts to school administration or sports programs.  For its part the Manchester FinCom agreed with this “reserves/admin/sports” approach, with one member adding that it should consider symbolic cuts (such as $20K late bus that is disproportionately used by Essex) to “send a message” to Essex voters.

But dipping into reserve or stabilization funds for operational spending (instead of emergency or “rainy day” uses) is a practice that ended this year.  Reserve Funds, say district officials, should be used for emergencies, not day to day operations.  

That said, many point to a larger discussion to be had about reserves.  Why, for instance, does revenue from school choice students go directly into the district’s reserve fund where it remains, asked Sarah Mellish, MBTS FinCom chairman.  Why doesn’t Essex use municipal reserve funds to bridge its appropriation gap, ask others?  

But district officials say funding an operating deficit by depleting reserves—municipal reserves or district reserves—solves a short-term issue, but ultimately leaves the district with a bigger hole to fill.  For instance, using reserves to fill this year’s gap means the district would need to cut an additional $900K from next year’s budget before it does anything else.

The School Committee will make its recommendation by June 4.  School Committee Chair Theresa Whitman said she has personally received more than 200 emails from concerned residents about potential cuts to programs and staff.  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 box in a special election.  

If that fails, then a joint Special Town Meeting of both towns would decide the final budget.

me regional school committee, manchester, sarah mellish, regional school district committee, michelle magana, caroline coshow, manchester essex high school, pamela beaudoin, theresa whitman, superintendent, bruce shaw, charlie weld, level services, doris-ann vosseler, me school district, mbts fincom