By Traute Marshall, Robert Marshall and Joshua G Norman
No one disputes that Newton has real needs. But has the administration tried to meet them imaginatively - without automatically reaching yet again for a tax-override? Our group, “Moving Newton Forward – with Fiscal Responsibility,” thinks the city can indeed meet its needs, while living within its means – and thus remaining economically affordable and ethnically diverse. Here's how it looks to us:
Tax hikes proposed by the Mayor change the current 2.5% annual tax increase to a combined 2.5% + 4.3% override rate, for a total increase of 6.8%. That means most Newton residents would see their taxes rise between $500 and $750 annually. As an alternative, MNF has identified three areas where the city could save:
The Community Preservation Act, an override passed in 2002, funds affordable housing, historic resources, open space, and recreation land. CPA generates about $3.1 million every year, of which $2.44 million come from Newton taxpayers and $.62M comes from the state. If Newton citizens voted to re-purpose the CPA override into a “Community IMPROVEMENT Fund,” it would supply $2.44 million annually for infrastructure repairs. Such repurposing of CPA funds for ten years would eliminate our backlog of neglect. If the pro-override group was willing to invest time and money in a special election to increase people's taxes, we think that there should no problem with that group engaging in a similar effort to end CPA and repurpose the CPA moneys into the general fund.
According to the Newton School Committee, selling naming rights to private companies could generate $6 million over three years. Is it tacky to put advertisers’ names on school buildings? Maybe, but it’s fiscally smart enough for sports arenas, theaters, museums, and university buildings to sell names. Tellingly, Alderman Baker and Former Alderman Lipsitt insist on more tax increase overrides, while opposing raising money through naming rights. Which would you prefer?
Reimbursement for Out-of-District Students
Newton educates over 500 students whose parents are not Newton taxpayers/residents. The students fall into two groups. 91 are children of Newton teachers who do not reside, or pay taxes, in Newton. Teachers receive this benefit, worth $17,000 per child, as per their collective bargaining agreement. Is it fair to ask Newton taxpayers to subsidize teachers who choose to live elsewhere while benefiting from Newton schools? Even with a state subsidy per student of $2K and even adjusting for 13 Newton kids attending other public school systems that their parents work for, this benefit adds $1.2 million of costs to the Newton school system annually. The superintendent argues that Newton must compete in this way with other wealthy suburbs. We wonder if it is really that hard to attract teachers to Newton schools?
Additionally, more than 400 Boston children attend Newton schools through the METCO program. METCO allows Black, Asian, and Hispanic students from Boston (roughly 60, 20 and 20%) to study in Newton schools, IRRESPECTIVE OF THEIR PARENTS' INCOME. Think of the METCO students as filling an entire Newton school! Because 36% of METCO kids are in special education programs (versus 20% for Newton’s general student body), further expenditures are required to support them.
How expensive are non-resident students? The Newton Schools Committee reported that in Fiscal Year 2013 Newton will enroll 538 non-resident students. Newton received $2.1M in dedicated state aid for METCO and incurred about $0.7M in METCO transportation costs. Newton also received $1M in Chapter 70 state aid, as well as federal aid for METCO kids in Special Ed/IEPs ($141K), EDCO aid for hearing impaired children ($106K) and $79K for special education students "tuitioned in" to Newton Public Schools. That amount hardly offsets the annual Newton per-student cost of $17,000! And that cost does not take into account depreciation on new school buildings that the override supporters want ($417K) or the interest expenses associated with new buildings and infrastructure ($251K) Here’s the math: $10.26M in gross costs. Deduct the net aid of $2.9M, and Newton absorbs a total cost of $7.36 million. Meanwhile, the city of Boston is not asking its residents for an override. Newton is.
Despite our rising enrollment and crumbling schools, we do not advocate ending METCO. Rather, we ask that native districts of all out-of-district students pay their share of the costs. This request is more than fair when you consider that when Newton sends its children to other districts -typically for residential special education programs - we pay full fare. For example, the City paid $12.5 million in 2011 before state aid to send 167 Newton-resident students to non-Newton institutions.
In short, Newton has options other than tax overrides. We just described three. Others would be: vigorous support of commercial development, reducing non-teaching staff, implementing more computer-based instruction in the schools (which would improve learning quality), and outsourcing and competitive bidding for services such as custodial services.
Moving Newton forward affordably isn’t rocket science. Fiscal responsibility only takes imagination, a focus on savings, and respect for Newton students, taxpayers, and employees.