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Letter to the Editor: There's a Need For Clarity In School Information

Wenham resident David Reid gives his analysis of the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School District budget.

To the Editor:

I’m always chagrined by the rhetoric that comes out every budget season without facts to back up the words. After hearing comments made at a recent School Committee meeting about the schools always getting cut and the towns always getting what they want, I decided to look at the facts for myself. Note that these facts are not hard to find – they come from the annual town warrants, and from the DESE website that publishes the information our schools report every year, so no committee member – or resident – should be hard pressed to look up the facts before they make comments.

But before I get to the facts, I’ve decided to preface my comments with a little bit of “full disclosure” so my intent won’t be “spun” and the message lost – so here it goes. My family has been in Wenham for almost 50 years - I grew up in Wenham, and my wife, kids and I live here now (my mom still lives with us too) – and over the years “my family” has put eight kids through the schools (and we currently have one in the system today) – so we’re solid believers in strong schools.

Second, I’m in management in a global company, and I have colleagues and employees in many countries around the world, so I understand better than most the need for our kids to be well educated in the competitive global environment we live in today.

Third, I’m also a fiscal conservative, and in business and other areas I always try to ensure that we get the best value for the money we spend. That’s also why I participated in the Blue Ribbon Committee study – to help us start to develop real world benchmarking for our schools so we can ensure we operate as a “best in class” school system by looking at what others are doing too.

And finally, I appreciate the effort and time our committee members put in to help our towns and schools operate – as these are “our towns and schools,” and they are ultimately what “we” make of them – but (and there’s always a but), we also need to make sure we stay “factual”, and as such, the following is intended to clarify some of the rhetorical comments we are hearing this budget season.

So – to see for myself how the town expenses actually compared to the school expenses over the years – I looked in the Wenham Annual Town Meeting Warrants for FY06 to FY11 to get the FY05/FY08/FY10 “actual expenditures” for Wenham (I live in Wenham so I had these reports at hand). For the school data, I used the Massachusetts DESE website, and looked up the financial statistics for the “per pupil expenditures” (PPE) for FY05/FY08/FY10, and the Massachusetts state average PPE data for the same periods. What I found is very enlightening.

On the town side, between FY05 and FY10, the Wenham town operating expenditures (the total expenses less the school funding amounts) grew by less than 20 percent, and in fact were reduced by over 3 percent from FY08 to FY10 (after the economic downturn). Yes - Wenham town government expenses were dropped by freezing salaries and making other departmental cuts.

Over that same period between FY05 and FY10, Wenham’s funding to the schools (our share) went up by over 40 percent (7 percent plus per year), and from FY08 to FY10 Wenham’s funding for the schools still went up by 15 percent (7percent plus per year) while other town expenses were being cut.

So the support for the schools far exceeds the increases/cuts in the rest of the town government – opposite to what was stated at the School Committee meeting. And back when Wenham was making these cuts and salary freezes, we were told that the teachers would take an unpaid day too (by the way, that was basically a 4.5 percent raise versus a 5 percent raise) – but now we find out that even this unpaid day was given back. If this level of increased funding and ongoing support while others are cutting back isn’t enough for the School Committee – I can’t even begin to imagine what the expectation of what should have been done would be!

Now moving to the school expenditure area (the total monies the schools “spend”), I looked up the data at the DESE website for the same periods. From the data the schools reported to the DESE, the Hamilton-Wenham per pupil expenditures (PPE) from FY05 to FY10 went up by over 35 percent (6 percent plus per year), and from FY08 to FY10 increased by over 13 percent (6 percent per year). Over the same period from FY05 to FY10, the Massachusetts state average PPE went up less than 23 percent, and from FY08 to FY10 increased by less than 5 percent. I also noted that in 2005 Hamilton-Wenham was “about average” for PPE, but by 2010 we were about 10 percent above average. Also, out of about 300 reporting school districts (non-vocational), I found that H-W is among the top 20 percent highest for per pupil expenditures for FY10. (FY10 is last reported year).

As what appears to be one of the top 20 percent “best funded schools systems” in the state, with what appears to be continued support from the towns (at least from the Wenham data I looked at), I would ask that the rhetorical comments like I heard at the school committee meeting be stopped. I also ask that we avoid the classic spin comments about funding like “we’re on the slippery slope”, or “we’re at the tipping point” – as they seem to have no basis in fact – and all they serve to do is confuse and frighten the parents.  As a parent who values education, I prefer that I’m presented with the real facts so I can make an informed “educated” decision.

So in closing – we need to continue to fund the schools as best we can (with decisions based on facts) – and we also need to spend that money in the most efficient manner possible (best in class) – as although I love living in Wenham and I’m proud of our school’s accomplishments – I also really don’t like having the distinction of having the 13th highest average real estate tax bill among the 337 towns/cities that the State of Massachusetts evaluates (and we’re only about $500 from being in the top 10).

Dave Reid

Topsfield Road

Wenham

Ted Richard May 04, 2011 at 09:37 PM
Dave, That was a thoughtful, well researched letter, and should be printed and posted on every taxpayers front door. Thank you for your efforts. Ted Richard Toppan Lane Wenham
Tracey hutchinson May 05, 2011 at 12:24 AM
Thanks for your thoughtful letter. It's devestating that we have become so decisive that everyone seems to have an us against th mentality. Whatever happened to utilitarianism. I wonder if people actually like to fight or have just gotten so used to it they have to crreate drama when there should be none. For instance this latest power play about emergency funds. The SC proposed budget is level funded, not an extra penny out of taxpayers wallets, although they are using a lot of one time funds and a portion of their EandD, and instead of cheering some people are fighting for more!! It seems reasonable and fair that towns and schools maintain the recommended amounts in their emergencies funds. Hopefully the voters will put an end to all this political jockeying and we can all come together and appreciate how blessed we are to live here!! Hope to see everyone one at buker 1pm Sat!!
Tracy May 05, 2011 at 01:42 AM
" I found that H-W is among the top 20 percent highest for per pupil expenditures for FY10." Yes. And we are in the top 20 percent in test scores, graduation rates, acceptance rates to 4-year colleges, and way beyond the top 20 in arts, sports, and academic competition. Bottom 20 in drug/alcohol use, crime and dropout rates. As a voter, you have every right not be happy with what is spent, but you cannot argue we aren't getting commensurate results. Some people actually want to be in the top 20. I know, because they're buying houses in my neighborhood right now.
Trudy May 05, 2011 at 03:19 AM
Unfortunately making the correlation that the top 20% of "spenders" are going to be the top 20% of "schools" is not correct, as if you look into the actual numbers, many towns who spend more than we do are not doing as well in performance, and many schools who spend far less are doing better than we are. So it is not really about how much you spend - it's about how well you spend it. The real question is what are these other top schools who are still above us in performance (but spending less than we are) doing better with their money than what we are doing? My core point is that even though certain people continue to say we constantly cut the schools - we actually have one of the best funded schools in the state - and we've been getting relatively better funded, not worse, over the past several years, as compared to other schools. And - some of us actually want to be in the Top 10 (for performance) - but also be smart about how we spend our money. So we need to look at how we can be best in class with the money we spend - as that will ultimately make us a better school system. Dave Reid

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