Myth Busters

Dear Friends~

Many of you have asked for answers to the tough questions you and your neighbors pose on public school funding and spending. Over the next few weeks, we will be addressing a variety of misconceptions (“myths”) related to the financing and costs of our public schools. We hope you find this helpful and will share this information with others.

Myths:

  1. If the School District really tried, they could get more money from the State.
  2. Our towns have passed overrides for the past 7 years. The School District must be doing something wrong if the schools don’t have enough money.
  3. Our towns are not controlling costs as well as other districts.
  4. Our teachers’ salaries are too high.
  5. Our special education costs are too high.
  6. Our administrative costs are too high.
  7. Our school district spends more per pupil than other districts.
  8. Our schools are run like private schools.
  9. Our taxes are already too high in Massachusetts.
  10. The funding issues in our schools only affect families with children in our schools.

Myth #1:
If the School District really tried, they could get more money from the State. (Published 3/6/08)

Reality:
While we need more money and are working hard to get it, the State is not going to send more money to Hamilton Wenham without major changes in policy and those changes are not likely to happen anytime soon. In response to financial pressures beginning in 2002, Massachusetts dramatically cut funding to public education. By FY 2004, Massachusetts ranked 41st (among the 10 lowest in the country) in terms of the share of public education revenue provided by the state. Because there is insufficient state money to go around, the state currently caps its contributions to “wealthy” towns (determined based on property values and income), such as Hamilton and Wenham, at 17.5% of a model budget. Actual spending is higher than the model budget, so under current state policy, Hamilton and Wenham have to pay more than 85% of actual school costs.Source: Massachusetts, Budget and Policy Center, Facts at A Glance—Funding Public School Education in Massachusetts, April 2006.

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Myth #2:
Our towns have passed overrides for the past 7 years. The School District must be doing something wrong if the schools don’t have enough money. (Published 3/13/08)

Reality:
Our towns are caught in a state-wide cycle where the gap between the cost of simply maintaining services in public schools and the money available to fund schools is growing. Several factors are driving that gap. First, our fixed expenses, such as utilities, pensions, taxes and insurance, are increasing at a faster rate than available school funding. (Utilities expenses alone are expected to increase 13.7% in 2009.) Other costs, including costs for special education and teachers’ salaries, are also increasing. (As we’ll explain in later myth busters, both these costs are in line with state averages.) At the same time, the state’s contribution to our budget has decreased dramatically in the past five years – leaving our towns to fund this increasing gap on their own.

Source: Massachusetts Department of Education, Preliminary Report on Current Fiscal Conditions in Massachusetts School Districts, January 2008.

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Myth #3:
Our towns are not controlling costs as well as other districts. (Published 3/17/08)

Reality:
Our regional school district is experiencing the same fiscal pressures as other suburban school districts. In the 1980s, school budget cuts disproportionately affected poorer urban districts. However, “today’s fiscal pressures appear to affect a much broader range of districts, including many middle-class communities that have traditionally taken great pride in the quality of their school systems.” – Massachusetts Department of Education’s Preliminary Report on Current Fiscal Conditions in Massachusetts School Districts, January 2008. The district has taken many measures in response to these fiscal pressures, including planning a Grade 4, 5 and 6 intensive reading program to keep special needs students in the district in future years. The district has been forced to make deep reductions to personnel and programs for five consecutive years — cutting 20 staff members last year alone and over 75 full time equivalent positions since 2002. We now need to make up for years of chronic under-funding.

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Myth #4:
Our teachers’ salaries are too high. (Published 3/20/08)

Reality: Actual teacher salaries in our school district are in line with state averages. In 2007 the average teacher salary in the HWRSD was $55,954, less than the statewide average of $58,231. – MA Department of Education. In fact, average teacher salaries have grown more slowly than inflation and teacher salaries are shrinking as a share of total school spending. – January 2008, Massachusetts Department of Education’s Preliminary Report on Current Fiscal Conditions in Massachusetts School Districts.

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Myth #5:
Our special education costs are too high. (Published 3/24/08)

Reality: Our school district has the same percentage of special education students as the rest of the state—16.9%. However, the chronic under-funding of our schools has left our towns without the resources to develop some necessary in-district programs for our special needs students. Therefore, while most of our special needs students are educated within our district, we have been forced to send some special needs students out of the district. In 2007, our per-student payments for these outplacements were $43,731, in comparison to $19,451 average statewide. -MA Department of Education. To save on special education costs in the future, the district is planning a Grade 4, 5 and 6 intensive reading program to keep special needs students in the district in future years. We need a school budget that allows us to develop important in-district special needs programs, such as this program.

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Myth #6: Our administrative costs are too high.

Reality:Our administrative costs per pupil are in line with state averages, a commendable accomplishment given the small size of our district and the lack of economies of scale. In FY 2007, we spent $424 per pupil per year, compared to a state per-pupil average of $405. – MA Department of Education.

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Myth #7:
Our school district spends more per pupil than other districts.

Reality:Our school district spending per pupil is in line with the statewide average. In 2006, we were slightly below state average spending per pupil ($10,921 vs. $11,219 statewide). In 2007, we were slightly above state average ($12,100 vs. $11,819 statewide). In a small district, year-to-year changes in student demographics have a big impact on spending—especially in the area of special education. – MA Department of Education.

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Myth #8:
Our schools are run like private schools.

Reality: Our schools are not run like private schools. Average spending for private school day students is $17,225 and private schools achieve a median ration of 1 teacher for every 8.5 students. – National Association of Independent Schools, Member Schools Facts at a Glance. In fact, at private schools on the North Shore, fees average $25,342 (view private high school costs in our area). By contrast, our district spends $12,100 per student – Massachusetts Department of Education. And unlike private schools, our classrooms are often overcrowded. For example, we already have an average of 29 children in the most populated classes at the high school.

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Myth #9:
Our taxes are already too high in Massachusetts.

Reality: The Massachusetts tax burden is actually below the national average. Massachusetts state and local taxes average approximately 10.6% of income, below the national average of 11.0% and ranking Massachusetts only 28th nationally. – The Tax Foundation, 2001 L Street, N.W., Suite 1050, Washington, D.C. 20036 (2007). State taxes in Massachusetts, as a share of personal income, fell considerably from 1998 to 2002 and are proportionally lower than they were 20 years ago. – January 2007 report on Property Taxes in Massachusetts by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.

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Myth #10:
The funding issues in our schools only affect families with children in our schools.

Reality: Underfunding of our schools affects everyone. As developing countries invest in public education, the United State’s ability to compete in a global economy requires that we maintain educational excellence. Public education is also the key factor that has promoted social and economic mobility throughout our history—all children must have access to quality education if we are to remain an open society. Finally, our real estate values depend on a quality public school system. – National Association of Realtors President, Al Mansell, in Public Schools – a Toolkit for Realtors, National Association of Realtors, 2005. David M. Brasington, “Which Measure of School Quality Does the Housing Market Value?” Tulane University, Journal of Real Estate Research, 1999 Sandra E. Black, “Do Better Schools Matter? Parental Valuation of Elementary Education.” Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 1997.

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