Newton school officials say tax increase would supply ‘critical funding’ to spare teacher cuts

Newton North High School, in a 2010 file photo (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)
Newton North High School, in a 2010 file photo (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

Newton school officials said up to 50 teachers could lose their jobs if action wasn't taken to close an expected $8 million budget gap.

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

Interim School Superintendent Kathleen Smith laid out the dire consequences of the shortfall at a Newton School Committee meeting Monday evening.

“With override funding, it provides the Newton Public Schools with critical funding to remain a premier school district,” Smith said.

School officials are developing two budgets in preparation for a city-wide special election this March. A “no” vote on the proposed property tax override would result in a $6 million to $8 million shortfall for the district. In addition to cutting 40 to 50 teacher positions, reductions to transportation and extracurricular clubs and activities like middle and high school sports could happen, they said.

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

“Reality is when budgets are tight, there are ways in which to bridge that gap that would allow our school district to still function and operate very much the way it has before,” Olszewski said.

The potential personnel cuts come at a challenging time for the school district, the 9th largest in Massachusetts that serves 11,900 students. Staff in the district already work under strained conditions, officials said. Smith recalled when a principal she was meeting with had to leave and substitute-teach a class. Olszewski said the principal at her children’s school sometimes fills in help at the cafeteria.

“She's the checkout person when there’s a need for there to be a checkout person,” Olszewski said.

Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller proposed a $15 million Proposition 2 1/2 override. The vote would allow the city to increase its total property tax levy beyond the 2 1/2% annual cap in state law. A successful vote this time would supply $4.5 million in additional revenue to the school system's operating budget.

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

“You bet we used all sorts of one-time moneys to be able to flood the system,” Fuller said. The school district also used some of the one-time funding to balance the 2023 fiscal year 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.

"A $6 [million] to $8 million shortfall didn't happen from yesterday until today. It's a consequence of long-term chronic underfunding of the schools," Zilles said. "The mayor of the city of Newton is underfunding the schools."

The school district cut roughly 17 employees last fiscal year and had an operating budget of around $262 million. The teachers union contracts expire at the end of this school year, which could further complicate the district’s budget predictions.

In a statement, Fuller said she is grateful the union is supporting the override and looks forward to “working with Mike (Zilles) and Newton Teachers Association to make sure 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 override passed, it would still leave a deficit.

“That’s something I did not expect,” he said.

Olszewski plans to introduce a resolution at the next school committee meeting formally supporting a tax override.

“This is important for not only the future health of our city, but certainly the future health of our schools,” she said.

Newton residents last approved a tax override package 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 interim superintendent, said Monday ballots could be sent out to residents as early as February.

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

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Samuele Petruccelli BU Fellow
Samuele Petruccelli is an education reporter and Boston University fellow at WBUR.



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