If you are new to the budget debate in Beverly, you probably didn't immediately think about the schools when you read last week's Salem News story on Mayor Scanlon's efforts to raise the trash fee by 40%.
But those of us who lived through the budget drama of 2008 know the connection well. When the Mayor came up with his last minute plan that year to spare Cove School, he did it by diverting money that would normally go toward trash collection to the schools.
A Beverly Citizen story from June 2008 does a good job of outlining how the plan worked. As the story explained then "Technically, the money isn’t coming from the trash fee. Instead, the money will stay in the general fund [rather than being transferred to the sanitation fund]. The schools would instead use that money."
At the time, the sanitation fund was $1.34 million in the black, and Scanlon's plan was to use the excess in that account, along with the annual proceeds from the trash fee, to fund trash pickup while diverting $680,000 a year to the schools instead of the maintaining the sanitation fund. Essentially the trash fee would be covering a larger amount (but not all) of the cost of trash collection.
But, as the article clearly states, the plan was only sustainable for 5 years.
So that's where the city now finds itself in 2012. The money in the sanitation savings fund is nearly gone, and the city must either raise the trash fee to cover a greater amount of the actual trash services, or start diverting that money from the general fund (much of which still goes to the schools) back to trash collection.
As school supporters who watch state aid continually cut at the same time that the schools are burdened with ever more unfunded mandates, we feel the city needs to fund the schools to the maximum amount possible, and know that any cut from the current levels could have major consequences.
But as objective observers, its hard to dismiss the case made by trash fee opponents, chief among them Ward 5 councilor Don Martin, who question how the citizens of Beverly can be asked to pay more out of their pockets for trash collection, when costs are actually going down due to the citizens' efforts on recycling. Scanlon himself says the amount of money the city spends on trash collection is down $400,000 since 2006 due to recycling.
At this point in the budget cycle, School Committee President Maria Decker tells us that the Mayor has pledged his usual commitment of a 2.5% increase in funding over last year. But should the trash fee increase not pass, that figure could be in jeopardy, and that is a prospect that concerns Decker.
With the trash fee always controversial among a certain segment of the population, there is sure to be an outcry on efforts to raise it, and at least some pushback from the City Council. A public hearing on the matter will be held on Tuesday, April 17, at 7:20 p.m. at City Hall, and we expect a packed house.
A vote by the City Council will take place after that, and if the Mayor's request does not pass, then other city departments, including the schools, may feel the crunch.
Whatever your view on the merits of the trash fee, as school supporters we must continue to demand necessary—and transparent—school funding from the city.
Quiet Budget Season OtherwiseOther than the potential for trouble here, the FY13 budget season has been very quiet. Decker says there have been no major flashpoints, and there has been no press coverage on the budget whatsoever.
As always, parents of children in large classes continue to press the school committee to give more attention to reducing the size of classes. But the committee generally abides by its official limits of 25 in grades K-2 and 30 in grades 3-5. Decker says that there are a few classes with projections approaching those limits that they are watching closely, but otherwise its unlikely we will see any reduction across the board.
Decker also tells us that the committee is in the midst of contract negotiations with the unions, the settlement of which will have an effect on the FY13 budget. She also says the district would like to be able to reinstate several of the positions that have been cut in the previous years including:
- A fully staffed TLC program to address the increasing social/emotional issues at the elementary schools.
- More teachers at the high school to address an increase in enrollment, as well as support the school's effort to eliminate study halls.
These wishes, of course, are all dependent on final funding figures from the state and city, which often are uncertain until later in the budget cycle.
A public hearing on the school budget is scheduled for Tuesday, May 8th, at 7:00 pm at the high school. A draft budget will be available for the public to view sometime before that.
4/9 UPDATE: Today's Salem News editorializes against the trash fee increase, and Ward 6 Councilor Brett Schetzsle has submitted a letter outlining his recommendations on the matter to the Finance Committee.