Protect Acton School Staff and Spending

Wed, 2008-02-20

By any measure Acton has one of the top school systems in Massachusetts. Acton SAT scores are the highest in the state. MCAS scores are tops. More than 90% of students go on to higher education. Our students excel in athletics, music, and community service. Acton needs to protect the present programs and staff that achieve this level of performance year after year, particularly in this time of threatening recession. This can be done next year with a budget with no property tax increase and minimal or no new staff.

A budget to maintain staff and programs with no staff increases is necessary because state aid increases will be less than certain in the next few years. In the past economic recessions, one of the first things the State cuts is local aid to schools. If this happens, it will be difficult to maintain present school staff and budgets in the next few years, particularly if they are expanded as proposed by a full 7.1%. At the 11February Acton Leadership Group meeting, Dore' Hunter stated that the Governor's budget for next year is "unsustainable" due to the deepening recession: indicating this may not be the time for significant budget expansion.

Keep in mind that Acton has the highest tax burden of any towns in this area. This will only get worse if state aid is becoming less certain while housing prices continue to decline. In this scenario Acton taxpayers will be less able to support more taxes and potential overrides. Increases proposed for this coming year will be difficult to maintain in future years, likely necessitating future cuts, something no one wants.

In this environment, the presently proposed 7.1% budget expansion will add ten new school staff. This budget increase will cause a 4.1% property tax increase in this difficult economic environment. There is no forecast by any Acton boards that this budget expansion will be sustainable over the next few years. Quite the contrary, the budget expansion utilizes most of the free cash available to the Schools, leaving less than usual reserves.

In contrast, what would happen with a budget that provides no new hires? All present teachers, staff and programs will be maintained. The schools have been fortunate to have received expanded state aid this year along with a reduction in major expense items for next year. As a result they will do very well with a budget that will support salary and other expense increases, without resorting to a new property tax increase if new staff is not added.

To protect school budgets in this environment for the coming several years it would appear to be much better to hold on to present staff and programs this year and plan to save free cash to help sustain them next year. What happens if budgets expand next year and State aid does not expand next year? With the free cash reserve largely depleted that means a contentious override debate or a cut back on this year's expansion.

The real problem is that once some cutbacks begin, the threat of more cuts in the school budget could be the order of the day, depending on how deep the recession goes. Acton taxpayers in a potentially recession influenced future are much more likely to maintain a current tax bill than to increase it, no matter how well justified.

The excellent results that the schools produce each year are a good indication that the schools have no serious problems to deal with and do not need budget expansions, although many might like them. The one issue being put forth as a reason for budget expansion is class size reduction. In the February 11, 2008 Beacon, Jonathan Chinitz opined that class size should be reduced since it is greater slightly than 25 in some 31 of 107 elementary classes. Also, the Junior High and High School have similar needs.

The Acton schools presently deal with these class sizes with what appears to be an excellent management technique by using teacher aides to reduce teacher workload. For example, this year when more than thirty students showed up unexpectedly for third and fourth grades, the schools added a series of teacher aides to handle the increased workload. Acton's professional school managers use aides to effectively reduce class sizes, although not considered in absolute student/teacher ratios.

This excellent management technique helps in part to explain the high performance of Acton's schools. Mr. Chinitz was correct in his recent Beacon article that Acton has a high absolute student/teacher ratio. But he reached this conclusion by only using information that supported his point and taking nothing else into consideration such things as the use of aides.

Mr. Chinitz did make a humorous observation at a recent School Committee meeting that the high Acton student/teacher ratio is proof that high student/teacher ratios produce the highest school performance. While true on a statistical basis, one has to be careful before taking seriously this type of analysis. However, it does point out that Acton's excellent school management team has found a way to get great results by using aides when not able to adhere to absolute student/teacher ratios.

In building on Mr. Chinitz's humorous point, there is no data presented in his article to support a premise that adding more teachers will increase the SAT scores, or MCAS scores any more than Acton is doing with aides, for example. Until such data is available, Acton should protect the schools in the coming economic downturn in the next few years by proposing a budget with no property tax increase.

In summary, Acton needs to protect its schools. The best way to do so over the next few years is to defer the proposed staff additions until such time as the economy turns around and the State budget is more certainly able to sustain continuing expansion of local aid.

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Bragging about # of students who go on to college has always annoyed me(Secondary school teacher). Would far rather know the % of those who then graduate!!

Do not hire more staff this year. Let's see what the state does to help.
Connie Krea, 93 Concord Rd.

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Allen Nitschelm replies