Newton school officials say raising taxes would provide ‘essential funding’ to spare teacher cuts

Newton school officials said up to 50 teachers could lose their jobs if action is not taken to address a projected budget shortfall of $8 million.

Even if Newton voters approve a proposed property tax waiver, the system could still be $2 million in the hole and may have to fill that gap by increasing transportation and sports fees, officials said. .

Acting school superintendent Kathleen Smith laid out the dire consequences of the shortfall during a Newton school committee meeting on Monday night.

“With priority funding, it provides Newton Public Schools with critical funding to remain a top-notch school district,” Smith said.

School officials are developing two budgets in preparation for a citywide special election in March. A “no” vote on the proposed property tax waiver would result in a shortfall of 6 to 8 million dollars for the district. In addition to cutting 40 to 50 teaching positions, cuts to transportation and extracurricular clubs and activities like middle and high school sports could occur, they said.

Even if voters choose to permanently raise the property tax, the school system could still face a shortfall of between $2 million and $4 million. Newton School Committee Chair Tamika Olszewski said in an interview that there would still be adjustments needed, such as higher transportation or sports participation fees.

“The reality is that when budgets are tight, there are ways to close that gap that would allow our school district to continue to function and operate much like before,” Olszewski said.

The potential staff cuts come at a difficult time for the school district, the 9th largest in Massachusetts which serves 11,900 students. District staff are already working under strained conditions, officials said. Smith recalls a principal she was meeting with having to leave and replace a course. Olszewski said the principal of his children’s school sometimes fills in the cafeteria help.

“She’s the cashier when there’s a need for a cashier,” Olszewski said.

Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller offered a $15 million waiver of the 2 1/2 proposal. The vote would allow the city to raise its total property tax beyond the 2 1/2 percent annual cap under state law. A successful vote this time around would provide $4.5 million in additional revenue to the school system’s operating budget.

School officials said rising utility and health insurance costs were partly to blame for the budget gap. Fuller, who spoke at Monday’s meeting, said they are also prioritizing federal funds to equip school buildings with new ventilation systems, provide additional guidance counselors to students and ensure that every child has access to learning technology.

“You bet we used all sorts of one-time money so we could flood the system,” Fuller said. The school district also used some of the one-time funding to balance the fiscal year 2023 budget, according to Monday’s presentation.

Michael Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association, said the shortfall is the culmination of a persistent structural deficit.

“One $6 [million] to $8 million deficit did not happen yesterday. It’s a consequence of the long-term chronic underfunding of schools,” Zilles said. “The mayor of the town of Newton is underfunding schools.”

The school district laid off about 17 employees in the last fiscal year and had an operating budget of about $262 million. The teachers’ union contracts expire at the end of this school year, which could further complicate the district’s budget forecast.

In a statement, Fuller said she was grateful the union supported the waiver and looked forward to “working with Mike (Zilles) and the Newton Teachers Association to ensure our schools continue to be the strong foundation of our city”.

School committee member Anping Shen said Monday’s budget presentation was “sobering,” especially since even if a tax waiver were passed, it would still leave a deficit.

“It’s something I didn’t expect,” he said.

Olszewski plans to present a resolution at the next school committee meeting formally supporting a tax waiver.

“It’s important not only for the future health of our city, but certainly for the future health of our schools,” she said.

Newton residents last approved a package of tax waivers in 2013 totaling $11.4 million, in part to help build new elementary schools and hire more teachers.

This year’s vote is scheduled for March 14, but Smith, the acting superintendent, said Monday’s ballots could be sent to residents as early as February.

“I know it’s a sacrifice during this time,” Smith said. “We want to make sure Newton is number one; that Newton is a place where a family chooses to come.

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