NPS: Sustainable, with a Gap

What excellence will take

2/15/20244 min read

This update will cover the following:


The house party …is coming right up—please let Green Newton know if you can join us!

State of the Schools

While painful, the teachers’ strike did force us in Newton to focus on a few realities:

  1. the state of classroom teaching post-COVID, including the mental health crisis in and out of schools;

  2. the lack of trust between the union on one side and the administration, the mayor and the school committee on the other, and

  3. the state of the city budget without an operating override.

On Monday, the School Committee and Dr. Anna Nolin came to City Council to outline the 4-year contract agreement (that starts on page 14 of this). I’m relieved that the negotiators found a way to give teachers some of what they needed without forcing layoffs.

Classroom changes
Dr. Nolin and School Committee Chair Chris Brezski also acknowledged the reality of dysregulated children in the classrooms, students who presented as 2 years younger than their age and grade, and greater mental health and other special needs—a trend that was clear in 2019—and how challenging the return to school was and is for our teachers. Asked whether the crisis might abate somewhat as children were back in school, Dr. Nolin was not optimistic—she noted greater mental health needs in the wider community, not just in the schools.

Dr. Nolin and Mayor Fuller also spoke to the lack of trust in Newton—but that reaches far beyond our community to the nation and the world. As more of us interact via the Internet—both on social media and via email—rather than in-person, it is harder to establish, much less re-establish trust. Dr. Nolin knew coming in that the union leadership and her predecessor had a rocky relationship, and said that she reached out right away. Unfortunately, the seeds were already sown, and her outreach was not able to forestall a strike. Chair Brezski pledged greater transparency.

But the primary obstacle to settling this budget early and without a strike was mostly financial—even things as self-evident as the need for more parental leave come with a price tag (these can be found on slide 9). Despite allegations about piles of unspent cash, the city is heavily constrained by Prop. 2 ½ to tax increases of 2.5% per year, plus whatever tax base growth is realized in the year before (usually around 1%--far less than most of Middlesex County). One-time cash is great, and can be used to invest in things—repairs, one-time investments—that probably will save operating money over time—think of replacing an appliance that is costing you annual repairs. But using it on ongoing expenses is dangerous. Dr. Nolin read out a list of Massachusetts school districts that had used one-time COVID funds to plug operating budget gaps and were this year looking at layoffs.

Newton is fortunate not to be in that position.

But despite declining enrollments, the needs of our students, Brezski said, is growing faster than the funds to address them. As classroom teacher numbers drop, more special education specialists have been needed.

To really solve for the issues we face, and to fund Dr. Nolin's plans to move the school forward in excellence and recruitment, Newton will need more revenue.

I still hear questions from parents and community members skeptical about an override:

  1. Where did the funds to cover the contract come from & why weren’t they on the table earlier?

  2. Has school funding shrunk under the Fuller Administration (2017-now)?

Missing money
So why wasn’t the funding offered earlier in negotiations? Why wait until a strike? In fact, the difference in the dollar-offering on the table wasn’t that significant. The union had to make choices for itself—lower co-pays or higher number of parental leave days? More bodies in the building or bigger cost of living allowances (COLA)? Both were never possible in this budget. But yes, the mayor did allocate more of the one-time funds, via an overlay account, to ongoing expenses. City Council still must approve the mechanism, but the effects of this five-year overlay are visualized in the chart on page 12 of the slides above.

The “pension relief” refers to the fact that Newton’s unfunded pension liability is being paid down at a rate that increases every year by 6.6% until August of 2031. If we are fully-funded then, we will have freed up about $20m to spend on operating costs—such as the schools, the roads, parks, and everything else Newton residents expect.

Why weren't these funds on the table earlier? I think the overlay mechanism is still in doubt—and thus promising it is risky.

How has the school budget changed?
The schools, according to Dr. Nolin, need about 5-6% growth year over year to maintain excellence. Bur Newton's tax revenue is constrained (see above).  Since 2017, when Mayor Fuller took office, city budgets as a whole have had to live with 2.5% growth. The schools have received an annual allocation of 3.5%. That means that since 2017, the school budget has grown faster than the city budgets, including as a percentage of the total budget. (Pension contributions have risen more, as mentioned above). Raises under the last contract meant that the schools had to lay off staff to make revenue and expenses match. This new contract remedies that somewhat, but the annual allocation remains at about 3.5%.

In sum, to fund Dr. Nolin’s plans (pages 1-7), for which most of City Council expressed support Monday, we will need an override. Organizing can start now, but the main push will be in 2025-26 with a vote in 2027. Your help will be needed.  

Other updates

How can you salt smarter?
Salt your driveways and walkways more efficiently! Mass DCR has a series of education videos that cover various methods of salt reduction from creating your own salt brine to using appropriate amounts of salt (it is less than you think!). Learn more about salt reduction >>

Composting options
(h/t to Alan Gordon): The city has just rolled out 3 additional organics drop-off locations.  For anyone not already composting (home, Black Earth, or other) these new locations make organics drop off more easily accessible.
And if you haven't heard, for new customers interested in compost pick up by Black Earth, the starter kits (the curbside bin and compostable bags) are now free. More information.  

Office Hours

I’m holding office hours at Café Nero in Newtonville Friday, 11:30 – 12:30. If it’s nice outside, we will sit there.

I hope you can join me!