‘EXTREMELY DESTRUCTIVE’: School Committee Responds To Finance Committee’s $500K Reduction To Next Year’s School Budget Proposal

WILMINGTON, MA — At its meeting on Wednesday night, the Wilmington School Committee responded to the Wilmington Finance Committee’s recent decision to propose a $500,000 cut to the school’s budget for Fiscal Year 2023 due to a continued decline in enrollment.

For nearly an hour, the Committee discussed the situation, ultimately deciding to send a response to the Finance Committee and a letter to Wilmington families. The letter was written by School Committee Chair Dr. Jennifer Bryson, with assistance of Assistant Superintendent Christine Elliott.

“This recommended budget cut is short-sighted and counterproductive,” said School Committee Vice Chair David Ragsdale. “We’re still emerging from two years of pandemic with learning loss, academic regression, and mental health challenges. We’re putting resources into those [areas] as they are the needs our students have. Cutting the budget at this point as we’re trying to recover is an extremely destructive thing.”

“80% of the budget is staff,” continued Ragsdale. “Should we just cut at the High School [where the enrollment decline is greatest]? That would result in cutting courses. In order to offer a broad range of courses, you need staff to actually teach those classes. This cut would harm the students that are currently enrolled and make the high school less attractive for future students, which won’t help our enrollment problem. It’s a short-sighted and counterproductive move.”

Ragsdale noted that the Superintendent Brand and his leadership team spent months working on the proposed budget and, in good faith, collaborated with Town Manager Jeff Hull and his leadership team, ultimately agreeing on an amount for the school budget. As part of the back-and-forth process, Ragsdale noted Brand already made several reductions to his initial budget proposal.

“It’s one thing if there was no money,” said Ragsdale. “But Wilmington can financially support this budget, so the cuts feels punitive — some sort of slap. The Finance Committee wasn’t happy with some thing we did or didn’t do, rather than saying the town can’t support this. I kinda think that is unjustifiable. The Town has the resources.”

Ragsdale suggested the Finance Committee was penalizing Wilmington for having two excellent high schools, and that it was unfair to compare Wilmington’s attrition rates with other districts, since most don’t have two public high school options.

“You can be concerned with Wilmington’s enrollment without making inappropriate comparisons. Most towns in Massachusetts don’t belong to a regional school district where they can send their children for free,” noted Ragsdale. “Wilmington made a different decision to the benefit of our students. Now our students have the option of two great high schools to go. [The Finance Committee] is penalizing Wilmington for giving these students that option, which is causing a decrease in [Wilmington Public Schools] attrition rate.”

School Committee member Melissa Plowman urged residents to vote in favor of the School Committee’s budget, without the proposed cut, at the Annual Town Meeting on April 30.

“I just want to emphasize to the community of some of the data and statistics that we have gleaned from our children themselves,” said Plowman. “By the end of 2020-2021 school year, Student Support Services received 391 requests for special education evaluations. For this year, the projected estimate is 500-600 evaluations. This isn’t a 1:1 situation. A decrease enrollment doesn’t mean a decrease budget. It’s not that simplistic. We’re talking about little human beings and what they’ve endured over the last couple of years.”

Plowman pointed to the startling statistics from the district’s most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey — 15.4% of students have thought about attempting suicide, 10.5% have made a plan to commit suicide, and 2% have attempted suicide. She noted that, at the high school level, 87.5% of students reported feeling “overwhelming stress levels.”

“We have to be thinking about the social emotional aspects of our students. That has to be factored into an operational budget when we’re thinking about how we’re servicing the kids of this town. It’s staggering. I have data point after data point,” continued Plowman. “Listen to what they’re telling us. [Students] are telling us they need more resources. This is not the time to cut a budget that was within the boundaries of what we were given by the Town Manager.”

School Committee member Jay Samaha believed the Finance Committee was conflating two issues — an overall decline in enrollment with the 8th grade attrition rate.

“When you look at the 8th grade attrition rate over the past five years, they’ve been pretty steady — hovering around 30-36%. Not great to begin with, but pretty much on par with Billerica and Tewksbury,” said Samaha. “The attrition rate this year was 52%. Yes, that’s high. Yes, that’s alarming. But this hasn’t been happening for the past four years. And the implication that we haven’t been doing anything about it is not true…. When they make the suggestion to reduce the school budget by $500,000 — which is the same amount they had to increase the Tech’s budget — that is where I see the conflation of these two issues.”

“Special education costs are increasing. A decline in enrollment doesn’t mean a lower budget — not every student costs the same amount to educate,” added Samaha. “The Town Manager says the town can support [our original budget request]. It was not a wild ask. It’s gone through this whole process, and how here’s this last-minute amendment that is not really based on anything that I can really figure it out other than the 8th grade attrition rate for this one year.”

School Committee member MJ Byrnes said she was uncomfortable watching the Finance Committee Meeting.

“It seemed like we were being punished for something we’re trying to work on. We presented a bare bones budget. 80-85% of our operation budget goes to salary… Not for nothing, this is my 11th year on the School Committee, and not once have we ever been in the red. We’re always in the black, which speaks volume to our wise fiscal spending,” said Byrnes. “I don’t understand where their rationale comes from.”

Byrnes suggested many of the Finance Committee members weren’t listening to Dr. Brand and Assistant Superintendent Paul Ruggiero’s answers during the Finance Committee’s budget hearing on the school budget. She also pointed out that the Finance Committee had no discussion on the Town Meeting warrant article to spend a quarter of million dollar on the re-pavement of the middle school teacher parking lot.

School Committee Chair Jennifer Bryson noted she was caught off guard by the Finance Committee’s decision.

“No one asked me to supply any information. No one asked me to meet,” said Bryson. “We’ve been doing so much. Addressing this enrollment decline is not a simple fix. We really need to repair deeply… So much has improved in the past 4-6 years. I see so much growth. At the same time, we’re being told we don’t need the [$500,000]. That’s very eye-opening to me.”

“How do you even quantify what we’ve been doing publicly and behind-the-scenes to truly address enrollment,” said Bryson, pointing to the MSBA application for the Wildwood, various principal and administrator searches; numerous family surveys; the creation of the PAWS Group to strength family/parent engagement; and much more.

“How does the School Committee make sure we’re telling our story better to the people who have to approve our budget,” asked Bryson. There’s clearly a disconnect between what was happening around the Finance Committee’s table and what we’re doing here in the district…. I don’t want to feel this way a year from now.”

Bryson added that the Finance Committee mentioned the pandemic just once while discussing the district’s enrollment and decision to cuts its budget. And she pointed out that the Finance Committee has not been in communication with the School Committee since the proposed budget cut last week.

Bryson thanked Assistant Superintendent Elliott for assisting her in drafting a letter to the community — which was reduced in length from 4.5 pages to 1 page. Their hope is the letter will mobilize the public to come together to vote in favor of the original school budget at the Annual Town Meeting on Saturday, April 30, 2022 at 9am in the WHS Auditorium.

The letter, which was emailed to families on Thursday, can be read below:

Dear Members of the Wilmington Community,

Last week the Wilmington Finance Committee recommended a $500,000 reduction to the school department’s operating budget for the next fiscal year. This recommendation was made after the district worked collaboratively with the Town Manager and his staff to deliver a budget that could be fiscally supported by the Town while still allowing us to meet the educational and social and emotional needs of our students. The primary reason offered by the Finance Committee for its recommendation is the enrollment decline that Wilmington Public Schools has experienced and a belief that the district has been ignoring this decline and has no plan to address it. On the contrary, we have been actively working to address this issue even amid the pandemic. We regularly include this information in presentations to the School Committee as well as part of the annual presentation to the Finance Committee. As an example, please see the most recent presentation to the Finance Committee here: WPS FY23 Budget Presentation for the Finance Committee. For additional information about our student retention plan, please access this document: WPS Planning for Student Retention.

A $500,000 reduction to the overall budget will have a direct impact on students. As a school system, almost 80% of our operating budget is directly tied to staffing. Consequently, reductions to the overall operating budget will inevitably include a reduction of positions which will impact programs and opportunities we can offer. At the high school, where the majority of the enrollment decline has occurred, cutting staff will result in fewer courses being offered, which will both harm the students currently enrolled and make the high school less attractive to students in the future.

A reduction of $500,000 at this time, as the Finance Committee has proposed would exacerbate the situation. It would impact our ability to make strategic changes to address this situation as opposed to arbitrarily cutting programs and services which is counter-productive to the work underway. Like school districts everywhere, we are making our way to recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact will remain significant for our students. Our budget must be able to provide the resources that will support their academic, social, and emotional needs. We urge Wilmington residents to join us on April 30th at the Annual Town Meeting held at Wilmington High School at 9:00 a.m. to vote in favor of the School Committee’s 2022-23 (FY23) budget.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Jennifer Bryson, Ed.D. School Committee Chair
Glenn Brand, Ed.D, Superintendent of Schools

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