School leaders make hard push for bigger FY18 budget

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The Canton public school system remains a high-performing district, but performance has been slipping and Canton has begun to fall behind many of its neighboring towns, particularly when it comes to per-pupil spending.

That, in a nutshell, was the message that school leaders attempted to hammer home during its presentation to the Finance Committee last Wednesday as it sought to lay the groundwork for a sizable operating budget increase in the coming fiscal year.

rodman1Specifically, the School Committee is seeking an FY18 budget figure of nearly $41 million, which represents an increase of 7.66 percent over the current year’s budget and includes the equivalent of 9.2 new full-time teaching positions. The FinCom’s budget target, by contrast, is $40.22 million, which is a 5.63 percent increase over FY17 and is based on the recommendations of the town’s Revenue Forecasting Committee.

While it has been common practice on both the school and municipal sides to stay within the parameters outlined by the FinCom, School Committee Chairman John Bonnanzio, who led last week’s presentation along with Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Fischer-Mueller, said that he had lobbied his fellow committee members to press forward this year with the higher number, if only to spark a broader conversation about what the town wants for its schools.

“I do believe that it’s important for everybody to understand what that bigger number means, what we’re living without,” explained Bonnanzio.

As part of his presentation to the FinCom, Bonnanzio zeroed in on Canton’s level of spending in relation to 12 comparable school districts and offered several data points to show where the Canton Public Schools have fallen behind its neighbors — including overall per-pupil spending, where Canton is third-worst at $14,170 and well below the state average of $14,900 based on the most recent publicly available data (FY15).

Bonnanzio also pointed to several different spending categories where Canton ranked among the lowest spenders, including supplies and materials (10th out of 12 comparable schools), instructional leadership (12th out of 12), and professional development for staff (12th out of 12).

If the School Committee’s preferred budget were to be approved, Bonnanzio said that based on their estimates, Canton’s overall per-pupil spending would be right around the state average, although “still not even in the middle of the pack.” With the FinCom’s recommended budget, he said, Canton’s per-pupil spending would remain below the state average and fourth worst out of the 12 comparable towns.

Despite Canton’s relatively low position in some of these spending measures, Fischer-Mueller did acknowledge that there are several areas where the town is currently at or slightly above the state average, including salaries for teachers, administrative assistants, and custodians as well as spending for special education. FinCom member Dianne Gustafson was also quick to point out that many of the school districts ahead of Canton in the rankings receive “significantly higher levels of state aid” as the result of a Chapter 70 funding formula that she described as “byzantine and faulty.”

In terms of student performance on MCAS and other measures, Dr. Fischer-Mueller presented a decidedly mixed picture of the Canton school system, although she agreed with Bonnanzio’s assertion that performance has been “slipping.”

Whereas Canton High School remains a “very high performing” school on standardized tests, Fischer-Mueller said there has been a wide range of outcomes and an overall lack of consistency across the elementary schools as well as recent declines in science scores at all three schools. She added that test scores at the middle school have “plateaued” over the past few years and that the district as a whole continues to face achievement gaps for certain subgroups, including African American students, economically disadvantaged students, and students with special needs.

Fischer-Mueller said the proposed school budget would allow the district to maintain its current quality while also beginning to address some of the recent slippage and hopefully move the district forward — through enhanced collaboration for elementary teachers; promotion of innovative instructional strategies at GMS as part of a pilot team program; targeted interventions for at-risk students; and increased professional development opportunities for teachers, among other enhancements.

While several FinCom members posed questions during the presentation, they did not give an indication as to which way they were leaning, other than to point out the challenges inherent in funding an additional $774,000 as requested by the schools.

In fact, even if the town were to “tax to the max,” FinCom Chairman Barbara Saint Andre said that they would still fall $240,000 short based on current revenue projections. And because the town divides its revenue based on a “two-thirds, one-third” split between the schools and municipal departments, Finance Director Jim Murgia said a $774,000 increase for the schools would have to come with a nearly $400,000 increase for the municipal side.

Barring an unexpected spike in state aid, Murgia said the only other option that seems feasible for the schools would be to seek an operational override, which would require initial approval at town meeting followed by passage of a ballot question.

School leaders did not indicate whether they would consider such an option, although Bonnanzio, who was part of the last successful override effort in 2008, said he does believe that residents of the town want a better school system and thinks it is “well within our means to become much better than we are.”

“We’re not in a good place to be taking a step back,” he said. “At the very least we want to be able to try to stay where we are and continue the conversation with the whole of the town as to how do we move forward — because it’s very clear we need to move forward.”

Bonnanzio also tried to be “completely clear” about the state of things in his opening remarks to the FinCom earlier in the evening. “For our new superintendent to be successful in her charge,” he said, “one of the many things we must do is to aggressively fund the school’s operating budget — not just to the degree that we achieve the status quo, but to the degree that each and every child, in each and every classroom, in each and every school, is more fully prepared for the next stage of their lives.”

He added that the proposed school budget represents “only the first baby steps in the longer march” towards realizing the school district’s broader goals. “But our ambitions are immutable,” he said, “and that is to improve the academic outcomes and educational experiences for every child in our schools.”

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