By contributing reporter Jennifer Bonniwell
Wellesley Public Schools are asking for an additional $3.1 million in taxpayer funding—a 3.68 percent increase—for the 2023-2024 school year, with the biggest surprise being a state- mandated $710,000 increase in special education expenses.
The proposed budget does not cut any existing teaching or curriculum, except related to enrollment declines. The district said it would cost $2.6 million more than last year’s budget to maintain the same level of teaching and curriculum, or a 3.06 percent annual increase.
The proposed $87.9 million school budget makes up about 45 percent of the town’s $201 million fiscal 2024 budget. The School Committee approved the budget on Feb. 7. The Advisory Committee reviewed the budget during its Feb. 8 and March 1 meetings and is expected to vote on the budget in advance of Town Meeting, which begins March 27.
The full 388-page school budget is available on the district’s website.
Costs Up, Students Down
The school budget increased despite a continued decline in enrollment, a disconnect that the school district wasn’t fully able to explain to the Advisory Committee.
Enrollment in Wellesley schools has fallen 8 percent from 4,426 students in kindergarten through 12 th grade in fall 2020 to 4,069 students in fall 2022. This year, 24 percent of school-aged children living in Wellesley do not attend Wellesley public schools.
“I see this as a perennial question, ‘If we have fewer students why is it costing us more to educate them,’ “ said School Committee chairwoman Leda Eizenberg at the March 1 Advisory Committee meeting (school presentation begins at the 1-hour 42-minute mark of the Wellesley Media video). “The lion’s share of expenses are nondiscretionary and have largely to do with step and lane [salary] increases within the educator contract, as well as health benefits and expenses and inflation.”
But Eizenberg also pointed to what she called “pandemic-recovery-related” costs to try to get back some of the learning loss and provide mental health support.
For example, the district plans to hire another math teacher and math coach at the middle school and launch a new “flex block” to allows middle school students to get extra help in English and math. And the district plans to add an adjustment counselor at each of the elementary schools to help address mental health issues.
The proposed budget includes $77.8 million in salary and health benefits, which is $1.57 million or 1.85 percent higher than last year. Salary changes are due to raises provided for in current contracts, minus savings due to turnover and enrollment declines, according to a presentation by Superintendent David Lussier at the Feb. 8 Advisory Committee meeting (schools presentation begins at about 24 minutes into the Wellesley Media recording).
There is no allowance for potential expenses due to ongoing negotiations with the Wellesley Educators Association. The School Committee cited confidentiality in negotiations and has declined to estimate how much a new contract may add to the proposed budget.
If the new contracts negotiated with the teacher unions result in additional expenses, those would be disclosed in the district’s adjusted budget in fall 2023, Lussier said.
Special Ed Costs Up 14%
The biggest driver in the budget increase, Lussier said, was the 14 percent state-mandated increase in special education out-of-district placements. In past years, these special education costs increased about 2.5 percent per year when service remained the same. The 14 percent mandate applies to all Massachusetts school districts.
“Wellesley is not alone in being surprised and frustrated with this mandate from the state. We understand the state’s desire to support really important services for kids that we know were impacted by the pandemic. The mechanism the state chose to do this caught everyone by surprise at a time of difficult budget challenges. This was something none of us saw coming or could have projected,” Lussier said.
Lussier said the district decided to forgo other additional expenses, such as hiring a new diversity recruitment specialist, because of the unexpected special education expense.
New AP Classes, Lower Bus Fees
The district has asked for an additional $505,529 to fund strategic priorities and $15,890 for other critical needs. For example, the proposed budget includes a new AP Chinese Language and Culture course, an AP Capstone Seminar and an intensive robotics Innovation Lab at the high school. The district also plans to hire a social studies department head for the elementary schools.
“You’ll see that this budget affirms our commitment to excellence as one of our core values in a variety of ways, from more use of data to drive instruction at the elementary level to an increase in math teachers and specialists at the middle school to additional AP offerings, a supportive science course, a Spanish class for home speakers and new electives at the high school,” said School Committee chairwoman Leda Eizenberg at the Feb. 8 Advisory Committee meeting.
The district also plans to reduce the optional bus transportation fee from $500 to $400 per child. The bus fee change, which will cost the district about $80,000, is part of a multi-year effort to reduce student fees. Last year, the district ended the activity and visual arts fees for middle school and high school students. In the 2023-2024 budget, the bus fee change is classified as a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative.
More About Enrollment
The district provided several charts to demonstrate the ebb and flow of public school enrollment. The peak was in fall 1969, when Wellesley schools had nearly 6,200 students, followed by the nadir in fall 1990 of about 2,800 students. The district expects enrollment to continue to decline, with enrollment dropping to 3,500 by fall 2027. (See FY24 WPS Advisory Budget Presentation, page 14).
As for causes of this current decline, Lussier noted that the town may have fewer children – 273 births in 2006 compared to 165 births in 2019 – and offered anecdotal evidence that parents moved students to private schools during the pandemic. The district has started surveying parents who withdraw students to learn more about the trend. The district also engages an enrollment consultant every few years – the most recent in 2022 — to help with projections.
State Receipts Up
State funding under Chapter 70 has increased over the past four years even as Wellesley’s public school enrollment has declined. In 2023, Wellesley received $9.6 million in state funding via Chapter 70, up 2.75% from 2022 and up 7.9% from 2019. The continued increase in state funding is due to adjustments in certain components of the funding formula set under the Student Opportunity Act, according to a written response from the school district to questions from the Advisory Committee.
Savings from Seven to Six Schools
Although building two new schools has been costly, eventually the town will see some savings from closing one of the seven elementary schools, according to district projections. In fiscal year 2025, the school district expects to save $430,789, mostly due to savings on employing a school nurse, principal and secretary, the district said in a written response to questions from the Advisory Committee.