School Committee Passes Compromise Budget, 4-3


ON TUESDAY, the Manchester Essex School Committee voted 4-3 to approve a $29.2 million compromise budget that cuts $763,876 from the regional school district’s FY24 operating budget.  

The move buys a year to work with the towns of Essex and Manchester to fix deep-rooted issues reconciling apportionment realities with the type of education offered to local students.  

“Right now, we’re in a messy middle,” said SC Chair Theresa Whitman on Tuesday.  “But we’re not going to allow this district to be destroyed. Or this relationship to be destroyed.”

The compromise budget, first presented on May 23 by MERSD Superintendent Pamela Beaudoin, retains all high school elective courses, leverages teacher attrition, defers hiring, and reduces “COLA” cost of living increases to non-union staff. 

The compromise taps an additional $252,000 in district reserve funds, something the district went into this year’s planning agreeing not to do with officials from Essex and Manchester.

The narrow decision followed a lengthy debate about the financial reality after Essex voters—facing disproportionate escalations in its share of the district budget—last month rejected a $289,000 Proposition 2½ override to fund the school district budget after a majority of voters approved the concept of an override at its Annual Town Meeting. 

Following the failed override, the School Committee has cycled through multiple work sessions with administration officials, fielded more than 350 emails from concerned parents and residents, hosted a packed public hearing, and repeatedly met with town officials from Manchester and Essex to identify options that might thread the needle of being fiscally responsible while trying to preserve the educational programs that have made MERSD one of the top school districts in the state.

On May 16, district officials produced a reconsidered budget aligning with the Essex vote.  It would have laid off teachers, eliminated the district’s French language program, and cut monies from arts and STEM programs. The prospect of layoffs and deep program cuts prompted a public outcry at that May 23 public hearing, with hundreds of students, teachers, and parents showing up (and hundreds tuning in online) to appeal to the school committee, Manchester and Essex Select Boards, and members of both towns’ Finance Committees who were in attendance. 

Their message?  Don’t cut student programs.  Find another solution.

The Shrinking FY24 Budget

The path to reducing the FY24 budget began in late March when the district reduced its $30.2 million budget by $485,884 to $29.75 million after it was clear that the 8.96% increase in Essex’s share of the district budget would be “a bridge too far” for local voters.  (Manchester’s share, due to shrinking enrollment of local students, had a lower apportionment of 5.72%).

On Tuesday, Lindsay Banks of Manchester presented the committee with a letter, organized by a collaborative group of supporters of the schools from both towns, favoring a "mediated budget process uniting the two towns in thoughtful collaboration."  More than 600 people signed the letter.

Banks said the mandate is to get the district budget “out of crisis and into a long-term solution.” 

Nadia Wexler of Manchester agreed.  But she said the district needs time to find creative solutions, like increasing the ranks of out-of-district school choice students to fortify the decreasing student population and bolster revenues.

Shelly Bradbury of Essex said she was one of the 507 residents who voted against the budget override.  She said those voters in Essex aren’t against public education but “have real concerns” about being overtaxed.  

She also said School Committee and town officials don’t hear from them because they may be intimidated by speaking out for fear of being branded as "anti-public school."  

For them, the question is simply, “What program works with the money we’re willing to spend?”  After all, a top-performing school district like MERSD may indeed boost real estate values and pull families to want to move here, but what does that do for elderly homeowners (or anyone else) who are not selling their homes and are burdened with increased property taxes?

“Don’t ignore the voters in Essex,” Bradbury said.  “The vote is clear.  It was no.”

But public sentiment is precisely what School Committee officials say they’re weighing.  Manchester School Committee member Erica Spencer pointed to Manchester’s overwhelming support for the original March budget.  She also pointed to the Essex voters who approved the budget at its Annual Town Meeting.

“The only reason to adopt a compromise budget is if both towns can be on a path to a mediated solution,” said Spencer.

Others agree.  Like Spencer, Essex Selectman Peter Phippen on Monday said he supported the district’s original budget but said the financial burden to Essex residents is real.  That said, he suggested the issue might be better addressed by addressing Essex’s property tax structure, creating a cap to protect elderly and financially challenged residents.  

A Structural Challenge

This year’s challenges aren’t new, and they’ve been building for decades.

In 2023, 1,225 students were enrolled in the district, down from the high-water mark of 1,488 in 2014.  Manchester’s enrollment dropped from a high of 913 in 2014 to 722 in 2023 (down 39 from 2022).  In Essex, there were 575 students in 2014.  In 2023, that number is 503 (up 21 from 2022).

In the last ten years, MERSD has struggled to reconcile its annual operating budget within Proposition 2½ constraints that cap annual municipal spending growth by 2.5% unless approved by voters at town meetings and then ratified at the ballot.  

But school districts like MERSD differ from municipalities constrained by Prop 2½, and as a result, MERSD’s goal each year is to stay within a 3.5% annual increase.  First, 80 percent of MERSD’s budget is staff salaries, health insurance, and retirement expenses, while town expenditures are heavier on infrastructure or capital.  School districts also face many unfunded state mandates (like special education transportation expenses, which like health insurance, have been hugely impacted by inflation in recent years).  And on the income side, school districts receive nearly all their revenue from town property taxes and some state funding along with nominal income from local grants and activity fees (as with athletics). 

Municipalities, on the other hand, have more robust veins of revenue.  Yes, there are property taxes, but there are water fees, income from law enforcement (tickets and fines), and permitting fees.  And there is federal and state grant money for projects connected to compliance and infrastructure projects, among others.  So, town spending could exceed a 2.5% increase in a given year while staying safe from Proposition 2½ constraints.

Live to Fight Another Day

In the end, the idea of buying another year to finally and effectively address the structural issues in district budgeting and town apportionment swings was what won the day, albeit narrowly. 

One of the committee’s newest members, John Binieris of Manchester, said the compromise budget is “an act of good faith with these voters.”  

Anna Lin Mitchell, a CFO with a non-profit organization who won a committee seat from Manchester last year, agreed.

“I support the Compromise Budget to buy us another year to figure this out,” she said.

With a new budget from the district, Select Boards of both towns will bring the package to voters in both towns within 30 days.  Manchester has already targeted a Special Town Meeting for June 28 and will finalize the warrant in the coming weeks. 

Essex’s Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee voted earlier this week to support the compromise budget in concept and will meet next week to schedule its own Special Town Meeting.

lindsay banks, mersd superintendent, john binieris, shelly bradbury, nadia wexler, theresa whitman, anna lin mitchell, health insurance, manchester essex school committee, education transportation expenses, school committee, long-term solution, pamela beaudoin, manchester school committee, peter phippen, erica spencer