This year’s Pittsfield Budget Committee hearing on the school district and town budgets will be held at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, February 8 (snow date: February 9), in the PMHS lecture hall, and Pittsfield’s annual School District Meeting will be held at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 16, in the PES gym. As always, all Pittsfield voters are strongly encouraged to participate in these meetings, which will determine the budget for the district’s schools for the 2017-2018 school year. This budget will provide the basis for the school portion of Pittsfield’s tax rate.
As many residents know, the Pittsfield Schools have been engaged in very important work to personalize learning for all our students. This transformation is based on new knowledge about how people learn as well as changing workplace demands for our graduates. Importantly, these changes also respond to the community’s demand for stronger outcomes for Pittsfield’s youth.
Thanks to the hard work of students, school staff, and community members, Pittsfield’s schools have emerged as models of personalizing instruction in recent years. Visitors from across the nation – approximately twenty groups or teams have visited the schools per year over the past five years – to learn from us better ways to help children learn. While most of these visitors have learned from PMHS, we’re very pleased that we are now also hosting visitors to PES.
While we don’t believe that we have finished our schools’ transition, we are heartened to see the data that indicate improvement across a range of indicators. For example, in 2012, 66% of our graduates were accepted by post-secondary educational institutions; in 2016, 83% of our graduates were accepted. In 2013, the average per student scholarship award for our graduates from all sources amounted to $8675, while in 2016, that average had jumped to $14,514 per student.
Throughout this period of growth and improvement, the district’s annual budget has remained relatively flat. For example, the 2008-2009 approved budget was $9,952,132. While the subsequent approved budgets have moved up or down slightly from this amount, the 2016-2017 approved budget is $9,846,477. This represents a decrease of $105,655 or 1% over nine years. And, while other districts have experienced significant student enrollment declines in recent years, Pittsfield’s decline averages just four students per year over this same nine year period.
Increases have been controlled through good fortune (we haven’t had any facilities disasters, for example, in this time period), good management decision-making, a fiscally conservative approach to budgeting, and an aggressive pursuit of grant funding. In fact, the district’s schools today are staffed by about twenty-five fewer employees over this nine year period.
Additionally, Pittsfield School Boards have “returned” funds to the town on June 30 of every year that was unspent from the approved budgets; these funds offset taxes for Pittsfield taxpayers. School districts are not permitted to carry over funds from one year to the next except by vote of the district meeting to place funds in reserve accounts.
Unfortunately, a number of factors beyond the control of our Pittsfield School Board will negatively impact some of these favorable financial trends this year. These four factors are:
- Adequacy grant cut: As noted in a previous letter to The Sun, the state’s stabilization grant portion of the adequacy grant is being completely phased out over the next twenty-five years by action of the state legislature. This grant was intended to support the cost of educating students from property poor communities. For Pittsfield, this means a reduction of $86,000 next year and an additional $86,000 loss for each of the following twenty-four years, an eventual reduction of more than $2,000,000 per year twenty-five years from now.
- Health insurance cost: Our guaranteed maximum increase in health insurance cost for the next school year is 17.2%; this increase is shared by both the district and district employees.
- Retirement system cost downshifting: The state has continued to downshift retirement costs to local towns and school districts; the downshifting has continued with increased costs being assumed by local entities caused by the state legislature’s failure to fund retirement system costs as it has in the past in order to balance its own budget
- Special education out of district placements: Although the district is able to accommodate most students with special needs, those with particularly complex disabilities require placement in specialized schools out of Pittsfield; these placements include students who are placed by the court system. Our personalized approach in Pittsfield had reduced the numbers of students requiring such placement over the years; however, our estimate for next year represents both an increase in the number of students and an increase in costs. In the 2014-2015 school year, for example, tuition and transportation for these complex learners was budgeted at $523,000. It is anticipated that these budget lines will cost $1,148,609 in 2017-2018.When the district developed the budget proposal for 2017-2018, these factors were taken into account, and another frugal, fiscally conservative budget was developed. However, the impact of these four factors was great. In fact, to maintain the same programs and the same staff next year as are currently in place would require an estimated tax increase of $4.74/thousand, and this increase doesn’t include the cost impact of the new proposed teacher contract. The School Board was not willing to put such an increase before the voters and worked to further reduce the budget. To do so, additional cuts were made to supplies, books, and equipment lines, among others, and the planned-for staff was reduced by eight positions. These positions impact both PES and PMHS; they include both teacher and support staff positions. At that, the tax impact of the current version of the budget is $2.97/thousand, again, not including the teacher contract. The Board’s adopted budget is $10,230,732. This represents an increase of 3.9% over the current year budget, but a 2.8% increase since 2008-2009. (In terms of comparison, the consumer price index averaged a 2.12% increase per year over the same period, and Social Security recipients received a 14.6% increase over these same years.) But what would happen in the schools if this budget were cut further? What would be cut? In fact, options for further reduction are limited and all impact students. One option would be to further reduce staff; this would result in larger class sizes and reduced on-site course options for high school students. Another option would be to eliminate programs, such as the extracurricular or athletics programs. Other options would include possible elimination of expenditures for books, supplies, and technology. These are all choices that impact students and diminish the district’s ability to provide our kids with what they need. During last year’s Budget Committee hearing, a citizen asked if the district could save money by tuitioning our high school students out of town. In May, the Board reported on cost comparisons with the six nearest high schools and found that this approach would clearly be more costly than educating our students here in town. (Additionally, the voters of Pittsfield would lose control of spending at the high school level and would be subject to the variations in costs in the receiving school district.)Unfortunately, there are no cost-free solutions to these financial challenges. And, unfortunately the system of funding education in New Hampshire will likely continue to disadvantage kids from Pittsfield and other small, property poor towns. The stabilization grant referenced above was intended to create equity for students across all community types. Though grossly inadequate from the start, the elimination of this funding source will eventually reduce the state’s contributions to Pittsfield by more than two million dollars per year. A related and even broader, long-term issue than the loss of the stabilization grant is the role of property values in impacting the level of support that a community can afford and the cost of that support. For example, the 2015-2016 local school tax rate of $15.66/thousand in Pittsfield compares with $17.44 in Barnstead, $16.74 in Northwood, and $16.03 in Allenstown, all communities that enjoy a greater equalized valuation per student than does Pittsfield. When we compare Pittsfield’s equalized valuation per student of $429,024 with Alton’s at $2,002,630, and Alton’s tax rate of $6.94/thousand, the inequity in our state’s funding system becomes shockingly obvious. All this points to the fact that this year’s annual School District meeting is a very, very important one, both for students and taxpayers in Pittsfield; it’s an important opportunity to weigh in on our kids’ future. Every citizen’s participation in two lead-up meetings is strongly encouraged:
- 7:00 p.m., Wednesday, February 8, PMHS Lecture Hall: Budget Committee Hearing
- 6:00 p.m., Tuesday, February 21, PMHS Media Center: Community Conversation Series Annual District Budget Presentation and Discussion
Annual School District Meeting: 7:00 p.m., Thursday, March 16, PES Gym.