WILMINGTON, MA — Wilmington Public Schools has the third worst 8th-to-9th grade retention rate in the entire State of Massachusetts, according to data provided by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary and shared by Wilmington Finance Committee Chair John Doherty.
Only 52% of Wilmington 8th graders are choosing to attend Wilmington High School in 9th grade, according to Doherty’s findings. In fact, Wilmington’s 8th-to-9th grade retention rate dropped 24% — from 79% to 52% — in the past two years. The state, meanwhile, dropped just 2% in that same time period.
All surrounding districts are faring much better in retaining 8th-to-9th grade students compared to Wilmington — Burlington and Tewksbury’s 8th-to-9th grade retention rate INCREASED this year, while Woburn’s dropped by only 1%.
In a surprise move, after a lengthy discussion at its Wednesday night meeting, the Wilmington Finance Committee voted to decrease the school district’s budget proposal by $500,000 to $45.4 million.
“The Committee decreased the bottom line of the school budget by $500,000,” explained Chair John Doherty after the meeting. “If you take a look at the decrease in students attending Wilmington Public Schools and the annual increases in the budget, it does not compute.”
10 years ago, the enrollment in Wilmington Public Schools was 3,620.
Today’s enrollment is approximately 2,812.
10 years ago, the town-appropriated portion of the school budget was $30.7 million.
That figure for the 2022-2023 school year is proposed at $45.9 million.
Doherty also noted that Wilmington’s Shawsheen Tech budget went up 20%, not the expected 10%, due to rising enrollment rates from Wilmington students. As a result, Town Manager Jeff Hull had to find more than $500,000 to fund the unanticipated increase. Wilmington has now overtaken Tewksbury has the second largest sending district to the Tech, in part, due to Wilmington’s retention rate issues.
“Our new high school was built for 960 students. We’re down 288 from that number,” said Finance Committee Vice Chair Theresa Manganelli at the meeting. “[The school’s enrollment] has been steadily declining since 2010.”
“There has been no understanding [from the Superintendent] about the need to decrease costs at the high school,” suggested Manganelli, who noted the Finance Committee has brought up these same concerns for the past three years. “The Finance Committee is not here as a representative of the students, teachers, and parents. We represent the taxpayers. When a situation gets to a point where it’s no longer a value to the taxpayer, we have a responsibility to speak up, reach out, and try to create change. At the very least, we need to let the public know that there’s a situation that we’re very concerned about.”
“The decline in enrollment has been consistent and steady. We have a brand new school that is 1/3 empty. We have an issue with the flow of students from the middle school into the high school. Someone mentioned that kids are fleeing the Town of Wilmington, which is really sad and disturbing,” continued Manganelli. “This is all costing taxpayers money. I feel very strongly that I need to be on record as saying that as a member of this committee since this is our job. When we come across a problem, we need to stand up. I’m in favor of amending the budget for the school system.”
“We shared our concerns with Dr. Brand in 2019. He acknowledged enrollment was down and that he would come up with some sort of plan,” agreed Finance Committee member Marianne Gallezzo. “Here we are in 2022. The thing that concerns me the most is, during our meeting with him three weeks ago, there was no plan. There wasn’t even a discussion of making a plan.”
“The [school] budget keeps going up and up. The rubber meets the road at some point. I think we’re here,” continued Gallezzo. “[Town Manager] Jeff Hull did a good job budgeting for the 10% increase from Shawsheen Tech. Then we’re still 10% short [due to a higher number of Wilmington students applying than expected]. The town had to come up with $500,000+ more dollars. We can’t keep getting squeezed on both sides. There’s just no plan.”
“In 5 years, we’re going to wind up with 515 students, estimated by the state, for a high school built for 960,” cautioned Manganelli.
“I don’t think Dr. Brand has even acknowledged that the request for a plan has happened 3 years in a row,” responded Finance Committee member Andrew Lavinge. “It wasn’t something on his radar. Yes, they’re doing some things in the right direction, but there needs to be a plan. They need to assess, analyze and come up with paths and timelines. I don’t think [Dr. Brand] has even acknowledged there’s a need for a plan.”
“There’s some urgency here. We’re the third worst in the state in retention. Unfortunately, our Superintendent has ignored this problem for the past 4 years,” claimed Gallezzo.
“It’s really sad to be sitting here and talking about this. This is my 14th year on the Committee. We’ve never had these conversations before. It’s been a very difficult three years dealing with this school budget,” remarked Manganelli. “We need to take a stand on this.”
“I’ve always been in favor of the schools, but I have never seen such disarray than what’s going on right now,” agreed Doherty.
“The schools are performing a very important vital service, but the demand for that service has gone down. At some point, you have to start asking if the services being provided are using the resources wisely. From the discussions we’ve had and from what I’ve seen, that’s not necessary the case at this point,” noted Finance Committee member David Tamang, who hopes community members start asking questions about what’s going on.
Committee members Jonathan Dugas and Scott Neville were hesitant to support the $500,000 cut.
Dugas stressed that the Finance Committee can’t dictate where in the school’s budget the cuts occur. As a result, he questioned the effects the cuts could have on students.
“That’s Dr. Brand’s responsibility,” responded Manganelli. “If he’s going to do something damaging to the school system, then he’s shirking his responsibility. That would be on him.”
“It’s an almost $46 million budget. What we’re talking about — $500,000 — isn’t going to really create a lot of problems,” added Manganelli.
Doherty mentioned that the school district receives significant state and federal funding that’s not included in the town’s $46 million appropriation.
Neville echoed Dugas’s concerns about not knowing where the cuts would be, noting he’d hate to see something like behavioral health resources, guidance and aide positions be reduced while students look to make up learning loss coming out of the pandemic.
Neville added that he’s seen positive signs recently from the Superintendent and School Committee, including the upcoming Middle School Program Review, the recent parent survey addressing issues of retention, and the School Committee’s reaction to those survey results.
Doherty was quick to point out that the survey was done at the urging of the Finance Committee.
“I see it as a step. I don’t think it’s the step we wanted — it’s not far enough. But it’s a step in the right direction,” said Neville. “I agree that the Superintendent doesn’t see it as big of an issue, but I got the impression that the School Committee realized something is wrong and needs to be fixed.”
The motion to amend the school budget and cut $500,000 was ultimately approved 6-1, with Neville in opposition.
The motion to approve the amended budget appeared to be approved 6-1, with Dugas in opposition. (Neville’s vote was a bit unclear due to the room set-up.) [Update/Correction: Neville actually voted against the amended budget, so the final vote was 5-2.]
Manganelli hopes residents will start contacting the School Committee, the Roman House, the Town Manager’s Office, and the Finance Committee to ask questions and demand answers about increasing budget requests despite significant declines in enrollment.
“The only people talking about all of this right now is the Finance Committee,” she said.
At Annual Town Meeting on April 30, 2022, it will be the voters who will ultimately decide whether to adopt the original school budget proposal or the Finance Committee’s recommended school budget with the $500,00 cut.
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