As Manchester and Essex Annual Town Meetings approach in April and May, it is important to update residents regarding the state of our Regional School District. We are happy to report that our students are thriving and our faculty and staff continues to deliver an excellent education.
In preparing the FY16 budget we find that we face the same challenges as we did last year: increased student enrollment, a decline in School Choice revenues, a dependency on Reserves to fund the Operating Budget, and the need to address elementary facilities remain unresolved and continue to present challenges that threaten educational quality. We are, however, able to report a major accomplishment on unfunded liabilities, in this case, future obligations to pay for the cost of retiring teacher healthcare. In both Towns and the District, we’ve referred to these unfunded liabilities as OPEB (Other Postemployment Benefits). In partnership with the faculty and staff, the School District was able to negotiate a change to our health care policy, reducing a $1.8 million annual obligation to an estimated $200,000.
Serving our students well is the driving force behind our budget development process. The communities of Manchester and Essex have long had a reputation of excellent academic achievement, high quality faculty, a commitment to small class size, and strong academic and co-curricular programs. Our program is well respected, as are our communities. As a result, our resident student population has grown 24% between 2007 and 2014. While we have taken measures to manage class size, and growth has leveled off in the past year, we still need to address the system-wide stress this increase has created, in particular, Middle School overcrowding.
This year we are at a critical juncture – one that requires the understanding and support of our voters in order to pass a budget that allows us to move forward in a positive and responsible direction. Over the past four years, the District’s annual increase in assessment has not kept pace with the rate of enrollment growth. While enrollment increased dramatically, assessment increases averaged 2.35%, resulting in per pupil assessment rising just 0.2% per year since 2011. In order to work with our member towns and maintain low assessments during a period of increasing need, MERSD used school reserve funds (savings) to offset the cost to the Towns and made painful internal reductions to close budget gaps, including cutting custodial staff, not replacing retiring faculty positions, reducing supply budgets, and the instituting new and increased student fees.
In fiscal year 2016, we must stop our use of reserves. It is critical that the remaining Reserve Fund be preserved as an emergency fund for unpredicted capital and program expenses. We also must make a priority the restoration of funds cut last year to help address the stress points caused by our student growth.
The District prides itself in working collaboratively and positively with both its staff and the Town boards – all who have a common purpose in mind – delivering excellent services in the most fiscally responsible manner. In order to maintain this program, restore the cuts from last year, protect our reserves, and preserve our educational program, we are asking for an increase in school funding for FY16. Should this budget correction fail, the District will see a budget shortfall that will include an even further reduction in staff and program and a continued increase in fees. However, should we be successful at Town Meetings and the ballot, the District has a multi-year plan in place to ensure the delivery of a quality program deserving of our students and one that reaps multiple benefits for our communities.
We thank the leadership in both towns for working with us collaboratively to develop this budget, and for supporting this critical effort to maintain the District’s educational excellence.
MERSD School Committee & Pamela Beaudoin, Superintendent