This time of year we are deluged with all sorts of information as we approach town meetings. For those that can handle a little more, I’ve assembled some data from credible sources.

Real Estate Stats for Hamilton and Wenham

Boston Magazine’s March issue focused on the Best Places to Live 2009. They took a look at changes over time in median single-family home and condo prices for 155 cities, towns, and neighborhoods in and around Boston. Data was provided by the Warren Group. I’ve taken the data from their online spreadsheet (see http://tinyurl.com/ddtysn).

Hamilton continues to show more strength than most towns surveyed, while Wenham is in the middle of the pack. In summary:

Boston Magazine’s Statistics for Hamilton and Wenham
  Median home price One-year change Since market peak in 2005 Ten Year Change
Hamilton $482,000 13.08% (ranked second to Cambridge) -10.58% (ranked 53 out of 155) 79.88% (ranked 73 out of 155)
Wenham $453,500 -8.57% (ranked 82 out of 155) -13.11% (ranked 77 out of 155) 45.35% (ranked 153 out of 155)

You can view this spreadsheet at http://tinyurl.com/dc88zg: please note there are 5 worksheets, which you view by clicking the tabs at the bottom.

How Our Schools Compare – from “The Best Public High Schools”

Boston Magazine’s September 2008 ranked 141 public high schools in eastern MA. I’ve taken their data (see http://tinyurl.com/697shq) and filtered it in a number of ways (see tabs at bottom) so you can see how HWRSD compares. View this spreadsheet at http://tinyurl.com/dhjmw4.

In summary:

  • When sorted for Cost Efficiency, H-W rated 31 out of 141; so, in the top quarter.
  • When sorted for Academic Performance, H-W ranked 23 out of 141; again, well in the top 25%.
  • Click other worksheets in the spreadsheet (http://tinyurl.com/dhjmw4) to view per-pupil spending; per-pupil spending sorted with the highs (Weston at $16,463) and lows (East Bridgewater at $8,719) eliminated; and HWRSD compared against the group of 15 “cohort schools.” They include: Acton-Boxborough Regional, Andover, Beverly, Danvers, Ipswich, Lexington, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional, Lynnfield, Manchester Essex Regional, Marblehead, Masconomet Regional, Newburyport, North Andover, North Reading, Pentucket Regional.

The Number of Teaching Positions Eliminated

I’ve been the unofficial keeper of the number of FTE’s (Full Time Equivalent positions) eliminated since the school budget came under fire in FY2002. You can view the spreadsheet at http://tinyurl.com/d4mley.

Layoff History:

The layoffs started with our FY2002 budget, where we laid off 7 positions; in 2003 we lost another 7.2 FTE’s..

Things started to heat up for FY2004 when it was announced that we would have to layoff 63 teaching positions. This was the year that we had two attempted overrides which failed; Hamilton voted no, while Wenham voted yes. Faced with prospect of significant layoffs, a grass roots campaign called Support Our Students (SOS) came together and raised $214,780. This allowed the district to hire back 4.40 teaching positions.

The historic “District Meeting”* was held 8/5/03 where the budget was voted on by voters from both towns. The money appropriated at that meeting was not considered an override; it was an amendment to the budget. The two towns drew funds from their reserve accounts to cover the total budget voted by the citizens. In addition, the School District allocated money from its reserve fund to offset the operating budget. This practice of drawing on the reserve fund started in 2003 and continued up to FY2007. The school district needs its reserve account to cover unanticipated expenses such as when additional SPED expenses increase. The School District was also allocated additional Chapter 70 funds after July 1, 2003 which was not included in the original budget.

With the budget finalized, the District hired back 19 additional teaching positions. The net number of FTE’s lost for FY04 came to 39.6, bringing the total lost in three years to 53.75.

With the FY2005 budget, voters approved an override which allowed the District to re-hire 16.55 teachers. With the FY2006 budget, 19.8 FTE positions were eliminated, but 9.4 were restored via an override, a net loss of 10.4 FTE’s.

The FY2007 budget started off with pink slips to 17.5 FTE’s, and 7.5 positions were restored via override.

Our FY2008 budget called for the elimination of 31.6 FTE’s. This is when SOS was reborn as the Support Our Schools committee. SOS raised a total if $266,488. The first $234,000 was used to hire back teachers, the remaining $32,488 was split between high school technology purchases and instructional supplies for the three elementary schools. With that and an override, the new number of FTE’s lost that year came to 17.5 FTE’s; the total FTE’s eliminated since 2002 now stood at 75.1.

The FY2009 budget called for the elimination of 27.7 FTE’s, but the voters approved a significant override, by a narrow margin which resulted in no layoffs.

Starting with the FY2002 budget, even with overrides, the school district has eliminated a total of 75 FTE’s.

If we had not passed a single override or collected any donations, the number of layoffs would have been 155.

What are overrides for?

In 1980 when Proposition 2 ½ was passed, proponents figured that 2 ½% would allow enough for inflation, and any tax increase over that amount would have to be debated and passed by the voters at the polls.

But the national level of inflation has averaged 3.08% per year for the last 9 years, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of inflation in MA since 2000 was 3.27%.

With Prop 2 ½, towns have had to cut spending, ask for overrides, or generate their own revenue to make up the difference. Towns that fare the best have a large commercial tax base. Unfortunately, Hamilton and Wenham collect less that 3% of our property tax revenue from commercial property.

Contrast that with the town of Peabody which collect 37.82% of its revenue from commercial property (see page 21 at http://tinyurl.com/c2rctp), and charges commercial property owners almost twice what they charge for residential property (www.peabody-ma.gov). Peabody also collects a great deal more money in the form of State Aid.

In conclusion, we don’t have a spending problem, we have a revenue problem

  • Massachusetts spends less than the national average on schools.
  • The state requires Hamilton and Wenham to fund over 85% of our school budget ourselves.
  • Our towns have very little commercial tax base – so the burden of any increase in property taxes falls almost entirely on homeowners.
  • Finally, we can only increase property taxes by 2.5% a year under Proposition 2.5, but the cost of maintaining existing services continues to rise more than 2.5%.

It’s clear that all groups in town need to work toward increasing revenue. Thank you for your time and attention.

* Never before in State history had voters from two towns gathered in one location to vote on a school budget.

Tom Rogers lives in Hamilton, and is the principal of Tom Rogers Web Design

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