Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on Feb. 7, 2017.
NORTH ATTLEBORO – Sixteen million dollars – that’s what it would take to bring North Attleboro up to par in student spending, compared with the rest of the state, local school officials say.
Through years of townwide budget woes, school officials have become accustomed to piecing together a bare bones budget, hoping that by asking for the minimum, they could prevent additional cuts to the school system.
But now, school committee members say they want to see more.
The board Monday night told Superintendent Scott Holcomb to develop future budgets that show exactly what the schools need – not just what will help them get by.
School committee member Neal Gouck led the charge, highlighting that North Attleboro has one of the lowest per pupil expenditures in the state. The town spends about $10,000 per student, whereas the state average is around $15,000. With a $4,000 to $5,000 loss for each of the district’s 4,000 students, the money adds up.
“That’s at least $16 million we’re missing out on,” Gouck said.
He said it was discouraging to see school officials put together a thoughtful budget, only to have no real input in funding at the state and town level. He urged Holcomb to ask for more money each year – going as far as asking for a $52 million budget, compared with the current $36 million budget – until the district sees the money it needs.
Other members shared similar sentiments, pointing to numerous staffing and program cuts that have stripped North Attleboro to the bare minimum.
“It’s like we’re putting this on a credit card,” Ethan Hamilton said. “Eventually we’re going to have to pay. And one year, we’re going to need $8 million to get up to speed.”
Holcomb presented a $37.38 million budget Monday night, up only $1.13 million from last year. The change reflected salary increases and three new budget items: Money to fund two new social emotional counselors, an additional math teacher and funds to address concerns in the school’s recent accreditation report.
Chairman Christopher Frost said the budget was a responsible one, taking in account the needs of other town departments, since the schools eat up a large portion of the town’s budget each year.
But Carol Wagner said that shouldn’t prevent the schools from asking for what they really need.
“Why don’t we ask the town for what we really need for once?” she said.
School committee members attempted that approach by adding a $45,000 line item to eliminate parking fees at the high school, bringing the total budget to $37.42 million.
Gouck suggested another $55,000 to cover coaching and busing fees for hockey and lacrosse, two of the district’s fully self-funded sports.
But the motion was criticized by Wagner, who said the district needs to take a more methodical approach to items it adds to the budget, especially in light of recent staff cuts.
“I think we’re spending the money in the wrong place,” she said. “I don’t think it sends a good message that this is what we’re going for.”
The motion failed 3-4.
Still, members urged Holcomb to look for ways to bring money back to the district next year.
Holcomb said the budget is a stopgap to get the district through the next year while hopefully avoiding any major cuts.
Meanwhile, he’s exploring a feasibility study by the state or a Proposition 2 1/2 override that would help provide a long-term solution to the town’s revenue problem.
“This gives me time to plan and see what we really need,” he said.
“I’ll tell you now, the budget you see now will be nothing like the one you see next year.”