To the Editor,
The towns of Manchester and Essex are fortunate to have capable and responsible leaders guiding our excellent schools. Since 2010, Pam Beaudoin and Avi Urbas have led the district in a financially responsible way that prioritizes stable and predictable growth. They have led our schools to excellence with a 3.28% average annual growth in assessment to the towns over the past 12 years. Member towns have only passed two Proposition 2.5 overrides in that time. (Overrides passed in Manchester in 2012 and 2016.) Considering that typical high-performing high schools regularly anticipate and budget for increases up to 3.5-4%, and Proposition 2.5 overrides every 5-7 years to fund those increases, this is truly remarkable.
Yet the town of Manchester is asking voters in Article 3 to approve up to $80,000 for an operational review to determine additional opportunities for “greater efficiencies and cost savings.” This is an unnecessary use of taxpayer dollars given the sound financial leadership of our district. Furthermore, an audit is redundant because the school district is already audited yearly and submits yearly financial reports to the state.
Most importantly, finding these efficiencies is within the purview of the school committee, not town leaders. This audit was put on the warrant without the input of school committee members and the scope of this audit has not been made clear. School committee members are actively looking into efficiencies and were elected to make these specific decisions. They employ benchmark studies to compare MERSD to like districts and compare costs. They are considering a free district review by the state. Rather than throwing our limited resources at the problem, taxpayers would benefit from town boards working productively and collaboratively within their appropriate purview.
Such an audit will almost certainly result in further cuts to a district that has already been forced to make cuts year after year. District leaders strive to achieve level services at a minimum but have been forced to stay within the confines of the levy limit imposed by the towns. This means that the district has fallen short of level services and last year’s slashed budget become next year’s “level services.” We have lost 15.85 positions, mainly through attrition, in the past five years. At Memorial, we’ve seen class sizes go up and program offerings go down. If, as town administrator Brendhan Zubricki shared at the all-boards meeting, Essex can only fund up to 2.5% overall growth, then we are looking at a budget gap of $920,000. Without a commitment from the towns to find ways to address this gap, we are looking at even more substantial program cuts and continued use of district reserves.
Indeed, in the past five years, the district has helped keep taxes low by dipping into their reserves to cover the budget gap, spending $100,000 in FY20, $335,000 in FY21, $335,000 in FY22, $520,000 in FY23. In the past, stable reserves have resulted in an excellent credit rating for the district, saving taxpayers millions in the Memorial and Middle/ High School Building projects. There is an imminent need to rebuild or renovate Essex Elementary School and the district has already applied to the MSBA for funding. If the project is approved, we must maintain strong reserves, stability, and community support. We cannot waste district time and resources on an overly broad audit.
We need town leaders to demonstrate their stated support for our excellent school district. We need them to get behind our school committee by appropriately collaborating to solve the problem of how to fund our excellent schools and prevent further cuts. We do not need an audit.
Lindsay Torres Banks