Hi, friends. Whether the snow has left us or not, the 2015 budget and election season is underway! Here’s what you need to know to support your schools in the coming weeks:

Proposed school budget for 2015/2016

The budget (click to view) includes, among other highlights, a decrease of $185,000 in health insurance premiums, and a request for an increase in funding to restore learning teams to the Middle School.

Remember: The school budget is approved directly by voters at town meeting, and there is no absentee voting. Please make plans to attend your town meeting on Saturday, April 11 (details below) to vote on the budget for the 2015/2016 school year.


Candidate’s night: Wednesday, April 1, 7 p.m.

Buker Elementary School Auditorium

Sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Hamilton-Wenham.

This year there are two people running for the two open seats on the school committee — Hannah Fraley and Dennis Hurley. Thank you Hannah and Dennis for stepping up. And in Wenham, John Clemenzi is running for the open seat on the select board. All candidates for uncontested races are invited to give a brief statement at Candidates’ night.

Contested races in Hamilton include those for town moderator and for selectman:

Hamilton select board (two open seats for 3-year terms) [Click links for Patch profiles]:

Shawn Farrell
Bill Wilson (current school committee chair)
Rosemary Kennedy
Rob McKean

Hamilton town moderator (one open seat for a 1-year term):

Jennifer Scuteri (current select board member)
Douglas Kiernan

Our schools run best and reach their highest potential when they’re supported by effective, intelligent governance in both towns. Please take a moment to click through to the candidates’ websites, and attend Candidates’ night Wednesday evening to hear their answers to questions submitted by voters like you.

Annual town meetings, both Hamilton and Wenham

Saturday, April 11

Hamilton: 9 a.m. High School auditorium

On the warrant in Hamilton, in addition to the school budget: Community pool, a propose ban on plastic bags, the future of the Patton property, a water pipe replacement, turf field fund, and easing of restrictions on cell tower locations.

Wenham: 1 p.m. Buker elementary auditorium

On the warrant in Wenham, in addition to the school budget: Community pool, purchase of new fire engine, payment of bill for cemetery preservation.

Ballot elections, both towns

Thursday, April 16, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Wenham votes at Town Hall
Hamilton votes at Winthrop Elementary School

If you are unable to vote on April 16, you may fill out an absentee ballot anytime between now and noon on Wednesday, April 15, at your town hall. Details are available from your town clerk.

Hamilton: www.hamiltonma.gov/Pages/HamiltonMA_Clerk/index

Wenham: http://wenhamma.gov/departments/town_clerk.php

One of the stated goals in Support Our Schools’ mission statement is to encourage cost-saving initiatives while maintaining a high standard of educational excellence in our schools.
In the past few years, one half of that equation — educational excellence — has taken a back seat to the other concern — cost savings — particularly in public and political discussions during budget season.

Support Our Schools would like to right that balance by urging the community to “Remember the Quality” — both as we begin deliberations on the FY2013 budget, and in going forward with long-term planning.

At a recent SOS meeting, discussion came back time and again to topics concerning quality and leadership.  The list below reflects our shared concerns and priorities.

Curriculum:

Curriculum at All Levels

  1. Members are concerned about the strength of our STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) programming, from kindergarten through 12th grade.
  2. Members are concerned that we are not adequately meeting the needs of students interested in drafting, mechanical design, and other “hands-on” disciplines, particularly at the middle and high schools.
  3. We wonder if we are adequately meeting the needs of gifted/accelerated students, particularly at the elementary and middle school levels,
  4. Members would like to see the adoption of a 21st century skills curriculum (collaboration, learning by design, critical thinking), particularly in the middle and elementary schools.
  5. Members question whether it’s acceptable that the district offers only one foreign language.
  6. We are concerned that the HWRSD offerings in the visual arts and graphic design are insufficient to nurture students talented in these areas.

Curriculum at the High School Level

  1. We are concerned that our graduated students have, in recent years, expressed the view that our science programs, particularly laboratory sciences, have not provided sufficient support for a strong start in college in the STEM disciplines.
  2. We are concerned that HWRHS does not offer a comparable range of electives as other schools of our size, makeup and achievement.  We are concerned that we do not offer an adequate number of AP opportunities, especially to juniors.

Curriculum at the Middle School Level

  1. Members support a return to academic teaching teams to the middle school
  2. Members support the restoration of a mechanical/engineering/building/shop type class to the 8th grade curriculum.

Curriculum at the Elementary School Level

  1. We are concerned about the lack of Language Arts writing curriculum in the elementary schools.
  2. Members are concerned that class sizes in the elementary school may be up against or exceeding district recommendations
  3. We are concerned that students in the same grade across elementary schools are not receiving a comparable educational experience.
  4. Members would like to understand the status of the math curriculum in the elementary schools and the benefits achieved by standardizing the curriculum in the past few years.

Delivery of Educational Services

  1. Members would like to hear from the current administration – interim superintendent, assistant superintendent of learning and student services director — a shared educational vision for our district.  This vision should be articulated to teachers, students and staff, and any gaps in resources and authority needed to ensure that vision is executed should be identified and addressed.
  2. We would like to understand whether department heads can ensure their teachers are functioning as a cohesive educational team with shared visions, goals and expectations from 6-12, and whether heads are encouraging and enabling opportunities for cross-departmental learning.
  3. We would like to understand whether Wednesday planning time for teachers and staff is being used as effectively as possible.
  4. We would like to understand whether HWRSD does an adequate job of identifying and supporting excellent teachers and effectively sharing their talents with their peers.
  5. We would like to understand whether expectations of teacher excellence are effectively communicated throughout the organization, and whether there is an adequate process in place for ongoing evaluation of tenured teachers.

Technology:

  1. We would like to understand whether our district-wide technology infrastructure is adequate to meet the needs of the administration, students, teachers and parents.
  2. We would like to understand whether technological expectations are effectively communicated to teachers.
  3. We would like to understand whether teachers who are in need of instruction and support around new technologies are offered adequate opportunities to improve their skills.
  4. With the rollout of Edline to the middle and high schools, we would like to understand what the next steps in our district technology plan are.

Organizational structure/operations:

  1. We would like to understand whether the current organizational structure – with a superintendent focused on business/finance and responsibility for curriculum placed elsewhere – is working for our district currently and whether this structure is the best way going forward to meet the educational expectations of the community.
  2. We would like to understand the articulated requirements for our vacant high school and middle school principal positions, and a timetable for filling these positions.
  3. We would like to understand whether there are plans to address our current structure of 100% user fees for sports, arts and educational extracurriculars.

Hamilton Wenham was ranked number #9 in Boston Magazine’s September 2011 issue’s list of best public schools in the region. The ranking reflects a variety of criteria, including graduation rate, sports teams, pre-K programs, AP classes and MCAS and SAT performance scores. HWRSD was rated number #12 in the 2010 ranking. Per pupil spending in HW is below average of both the top 10 and top 24 districts (we used the top 24, rather than the top 25 in order to exclude the 25th ranked district, Cambridge Rindge and Latin, which has a unusually high spending level). As in 2010, it is clear that HWRSD is spending at a level that, while slightly above the average of all districts in the state, is less than many other high performing districts.

Comparing HWRSD to Boston Magazine Top Districts

Click image to enlarge

The amount of tax we have to raise is significantly impacted by the low percentage of HWRSD costs paid for by the state.  The chart below shows the percentage of our “foundation budget” (the level of spending the state feels is minimally adequate) that is paid for by the state.

 

Preliminary Chapter 70 FY 2012

Preliminary Chapter 70 FY 2012 (Click to enlarge)

HWRSD gets less than half of the amount of state funding provided to the average district in the state. The Chapter 70 formula takes into account aggregate property values and aggregate income levels of the residents of the town supporting a school district.  The State uses this formula to vary funding to school districts greatly — from 100% funding for some districts to as low as 17.5% to others.  In FY 2010 HWRSD received only 20.8% of its foundation budget from the state.  In FY 2011, this translated to state funding for 12.4% of our actual spending, since we spend above the state-mandated minimum.

Forcing a significant portion of school funding onto local revenue sources creates significant inequities in property tax rates.  In 2011, property taxes ranged from $2.13 per $1,000 of assessed value in Chilmark, MA to $19.49 per $1,000 of assessed value in Springfield, MA, a more than 9x spread.   Compared to other states, MA relies heavily on local property taxes to fund its public schools.  The chart below shows that Massachusetts is in the top 10 of all states in terms of the percentage of public school revenue derived from local property taxes.

Percent Public School Funding From Local Revenue (2008 Data)

Percent Public School Funding From Local Revenue (2008 Data) (Click to enlarge)

The overall 52.8% local share of public school funding in Massachusetts is high compared to other states, but as we see in the Chapter 70 chart above, some towns and cities are required to cover much higher percentages, up to 82.5%, of public school expenses.  With the 80% local funding share imposed on HWRSD under Chapter 70, Hamilton and Wenham’s  school funding burden is very high and tax rates will remain higher than average even if the HWRSD spending level were reduced to the state average, or below.

Why will our property tax rates remain well above average with average (or below average) school spending?  Many towns and cities have school spending at or above the average for the state, but have much lower tax rates.

Property tax rates are the result of two factors:

  • How much money you need to raise
  • The total assessed value of the property to be taxed

Addressing the denominator first:  the total assessed property values in Hamilton and Wenham are not high compared to our population.  Our rural nature, mixed housing stock, high open space and nonprofit land keep this value low. Compared to some other communities, Hamilton and Wenham have:

  • Insignificant commercial tax base
  • No oceanfront/super-luxury homes
  • High untaxed/low taxed non-profit property (e.g., Gordon College, Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Trustees of Reservations, Essex County Greenbelt) agricultural land and government-owned open space (Town parks and Bradley Palmer State Park)

Also, in recent years, the value of taxable property in Hamilton and Wenham has been shrinking.  For example, Hamilton’s FY 2010 equalized valuation (as reported by the MA Department of Revenue) is about $1.5B, while two years earlier it was $1.64B.  This reduction in property values will cause the tax rate to increase even without spending increases.

The amount we need to raise is relatively high in comparison the assessed values:

  • Typical population of full time residents, including school children
  • Our small town sizes precludes economies of scale in all services (regionalization of Hamilton and Wenham services helps where we do it–for example, could save $500K by merging police alone—but it is not enough)
  • We receive very low support from the state for HWRSD (See “Massachusetts Requires Hamilton and Wenham to Pay for 80% of the State Mandated Funding for HWRSD”)

Unlike towns on Cape Cod or the islands, we have mostly a year-round population with resident children to educate.  While we have had a regional school district since 1959, even combined the towns are small:  note that the aggregate assessed values of Hamilton and Wenham are still $200M less than Ipswich.

 

Based on FY 2010 data, HWRSD spends approximately $850 per pupil (or 6.3%) more than the average district.  See “HWRSD Spending: Do we want to be average or competitive?”   Since we have approximately 2000 students in the HWRSD, our total above-average spending was $1.7M in FY 2010.   As noted in the “HWRSD Spending” section, we spend about $840 less per pupil than the average of the other 24 districts whose high schools made Boston Magazine’s top 25 list in 2010.  In recent years, some have commented that HWRSD spends $2 to $4M more than comparable districts(without identifying either the districts deemed to be comparable or the fiscal year of the data they are referencing).   Based on the most recent data, even a $2M reduction in spending would put our district below average for the state.

Putting aside the question of how much we should spend, it is useful to understand the impact that a school spending reduction would have on the tax rates in Hamilton and Wenham. Our tax rates are about 30% above the average MA property tax rate, as shown on this chart:

If HWRSD per pupil spending were decreased by $1.7M, the property tax rates in both towns would be reduced by only 4%. Using the FY 2011 tax rates as a starting point, that means:

  • Hamilton tax rate would be $16.23
  • Wenham tax rate would be $16.51

This 4% reduction would translate to annual tax reductions on a $400,000 home of:

  • $304 in Hamilton
  • $265 in Wenham

Greater reductions in school spending would have a proportionate impact on our tax rate.  For example, a $4M reduction in spending in HWRSD (which would take us well below average spending levels) would reduce our tax rates only by 9-10%.

Spending in HWRSD in FY 2010 was only slightly above the State average.  In FY 2010, the last completed fiscal year, HWRSD spent $1.7M more (6.3%) than the average district in the State, or $850 per pupil. This chart (below) shows how our spending compares to the other 327 school districts in MA.

FY 2010 Per Pupil Spending - 328 MA School

FY 2010 Per Pupil Spending - 328 MA School

But when HWRSD is compared to the average FY 2010 spending of the 25 other schools that made the Boston Magazine’s top public high school list (remember, we were No. 12), HWRSD spent about $840 less per pupil — around median for the group. Cutting $4M out of our school spending, as has been suggested, would take us substantially below average and near the bottom of these comparables.

Boston Magazine's Top 25 - 2010

Boston Magazine's Top 25 - 2010 (Click image to enlarge)

The question becomes, do we want an average school system or a competitive school system?

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