Open Letter: Budget Cutting and the School Department

Below is a letter to The Select Board from School Committee member Michael Crowley concerning the ongoing budget discussions. Michael generously agreed to let us republish it here.

Dear Roy, Adam, and Tom,

I’m writing to express my deepest reservations about the status of our town’s budget cutting exercise and its impact on the School Department budget for FY 2021. 

Mike Crowley is a member of Belmont’s School Committee

First, we do not know the reductions to state aid that the town actually faces for next year. A number of state legislators have suggested that reductions to school aid are likely to be more in the range of 15-20%, rather than the 25% currently anticipated in Belmont’s budget assumptions. Planning reductions around a worse set of assumptions now do not appear warranted. Further, the Legislature has given us the tools to slow the budget process down by allowing us to budget at 1/12 the prior year average monthly level for a few months, something our legislators have repeatedly mentioned both in private and in public forums. Accelerating reductions now only creates the need for a difficult process later—when our revenue assumptions likely will prove wrong—to ensure that funding is restored to where it is needed most.

Second, I am not confident about our budget cutting process. To be clear, I understand the challenge of budgeting for needed town services during times as challenging as these. Because of my former work with the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, DC, I’m very familiar with a variety of approaches to budget trimming, ranging from across-the-board reductions to much more targeted ones. We need to be better targeted about what we are cutting, insulating as best we can the services that affect our children.

Further, I am concerned that our School Department already is deeply underfunded as we contemplate budget reductions. Belmont already is in the lowest 1/6th of Massachusetts schools for per pupil spending. That spending level doesn’t represent efficiency. Even under normal (non-COVID-19) circumstances, we don’t have enough teachers and other educational help. We cannot effectively staff our special education teams. We don’t have needed social workers in the high school, where our School Resource Officer reports that 95% of her work with students is mental health-related. We continue to have demonstrated and disheartening disparities in educational outcomes affecting our minority students. Every parent I speak with confides concern and worry about school resources. We cannot continue to take these concerns lightly.

Lastly, we do not know the conditions under which we are operating the schools in the fall because of COVID-19. Most likely, operating the schools will cost much more than under normal circumstances. We need to begin contingency planning now to ensure that our schools aren’t failing in the fall, and it may require further sacrifice in the rest of the town budget. Even if we are not adopting other reductions now, it is time to begin thinking about it for the fall.

Again, I’m not asking anyone to do the impossible. I’m asking for a slower, more deliberative process, involving a better, more targeted set of reductions to town services that hold our community’s children as harmless as possible.

Thanks for listening and for all your efforts,

Mike Crowley

Member, School Committee