After the Big Bump

03Mar17

When the Wakefield School Department came out this week and requested a 4.84 percent increase in its FY 2018 budget, they turned a few people into prophets.

In 2015, Annual Town Meeting approved a “one-time” 11.4 percent increase in the School Department budget. The Big Bump was supposed to “right size” the School Department by “investing” in full-day, tuition-free kindergarten, updated K-8 math curriculum and K-1 phonics curriculum, increased staffing and technology and appropriate special education funding.

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Pretty much everyone in town went along with the increase on the theory that the School Department had been deprived of what it needed during the lean budget years following 2008.

To sell the taxpayers on this gesture of largesse in 2015, much was made of the following quid pro quo: the School Department was expected to commit to no more than a 4 percent increase over the subsequent three years.

If there’s one truism in the education community, it’s that too much is never enough, at least when it comes to their budget. They believe that it is literally true that you can never spend too much on education.

That’s one reason that back in 2015 a few members of the Finance Committee were among those who doubted the ability of the School Department to hold up its end of the bargain. They questioned whether the School Department would be able to resist asking for more than a 4 percent increase over the next few years.
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At that year’s School Department budget presentation, one FinCom member thought he detected something less than steely resolve when he asked school reps to confirm the commitment to hold the line at 4 percent. Another FinCom member predicted that the School Department would come back and argue that they need additional money to “keep the momentum going” and maintain the improvements funded by the 11.4 percent Big Bump.

They must be feeling prescient right about now.

In 2016, the first year following the Big Bump, the School Department held the line and requested “only” a 3.99 percent increase in its budget. Some took note of their admirable fiscal discipline in foregoing that final .01 percent.

So this year, they came out with a 4.84 percent increase – exceeding the limit by nearly a full percentage point.

Did they think that two years out, memories would have faded?

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Recently, the School Committee had a “philosophical discussion” of user fees. The consensus among members was that the types of extracurricular activities funded by user fees are an integral part of the educational experience and as such should be funded by the town – i.e., the taxpayers – and not by the families of participating students.

So, as part of its FY 2018 budget released this week, the School Department announced a four-year plan to eliminate “user fees” by 2021. Next year, user fees will be decreased by 20-25 percent, with similar cuts planned in each of the following three years.

To fund this year’s user fee cut, the School Department found $45,000 in its own budget and the town kicked in another $45,000.

That doesn’t fully explain the .84 percent exceedance in the budget increase, but announcing the intention to eliminate the unpopular fees in this year’s budget certainly is fortuitous timing.

Maybe the extra .84 percent in the School Department budget increase is justifiable. Maybe it’s even necessary.

One thing it’s not is surprising.

[This column originally appeared in the March 2, 2017 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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