Wellesley Town Meeting week #2 recap: $2M school budget cut denied; Omnibus passes; Weston Road project delayed; More housing allowed at Wellesley Park; Sprague bathrooms a go; Equity Audit discussion to be continued

The March 28 session of Wellesley Town Meeting ended with Moderator Mark Kaplan uttering: “Ryan Daws, Mr. Daws, if you could come up here, I just want to talk to you for a minute.”

Uh oh, what did he do, we wondered. But as apparently Town Meeting members were already aware, Daws had shared a proposed motion to snip the Wellesley Public Schools budget by $2 million under Article 8 Motion 2 regarding town’s omnibus budget. The April 2 session began with Daws publicly making his case with that motion, about 24 minutes in to the Wellesley Media recording.

Daws began by questioning the schools’ explanation for dropping enrollment in recent years, beyond pandemic-related reasons. The schools have cited a variety of factors, including lower birth rates and sky high housing prices that have made it hard for young families to move here. The Town Meeting member, pointing to smaller enrollment drops at school systems in other communities such as Belmont and Needham with similarly sized student bodies, suggested that a real driver for Wellesley’s dramatic enrollment drop—18% since 2019—has more to do with families choosing not to move here because the school system is not the draw it once was.

Daws juxtaposed the enrollment drop with an 18% school budget increase since 2019, including the proposed $88M budget for FY24 under discussion at Town Meeting. “In total we’ve gained 16 FTEs [full-time equivalent employees] since 2019. We’ve grown FTEs in a time when we should have reduced FTEs,” he argued, pointing to the proposed additions this year of a math coach and social studies department head he termed “clearly nice-to-haves, but hardly must-haves.”

Daws showed figures regarding Wellesley’s higher FTE-per-student ratio vs. other school systems and higher cost per student (34% more than the median from other school districts he compared with Wellesley’s). Based on undifferentiated MCAS scores, he questioned the town’s return on investment in its staff, and suggested putting $2 million from the school budget somewhere else in town.

The Advisory Committee voted unfavorable action 12-1 on the motion, citing the timing of the motion and a lack of specificity over how the $2 million might be cut.

Daws motion

School Committee Chair Leda Eizenberg began her response by stating, as members of the school team have before, that enrollment and costs are related, but not parallel. “It’s not a return-on-investment kind of situation. Schools aren’t designed to be maximally efficient. They’re designed to maximally impactful,” she said, noting that having lots of neighborhood schools isn’t efficient, and this is especially so during the current transition period. Special education services aren’t necessarily efficient, but they are important to the community, and FTEs that teach speciality classes or provide mental health support are important, she said.

Cindy Mahr, assistant superintendent for finance and operations at Wellesley Public Schools, pointed to the latest data to support the direction WPS has taken related to its enrollment and hiring. The schools paid a consulting firm last year for a demographics study in the wake of the pandemic’s peak, and found a 14.3% reduction in school age children from 2016-2021 (Lexington and Newton had similar reductions in school age children, but not in public school students, according to data Mahr shared).

Mahr said measuring FTEs and headcount numbers can be tricky, since headcount can include multiple people combining as an FTE. “Every year we calibrate staffing based off enrollment projections at all levels. These changes are documented in our budget document annually. In FY24 our budget reflects a reduction of 3.3 FTEs with no anticipated change in headcount,” she said. She added that the school system would face a cost of about $16M for out of district costs related to special education if it weren’t providing such services in-house.

Addressing concerns about Wellesley’s administrative costs, Mahr pointed to the latest Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data (released in March for FY22). The numbers show Wellesley to be #55 of 318 districts reporting in-district cost per pupil and #25 in teacher salaries, but #200 of 318 on per-pupil administration costs.

Town Meeting members then weighed in, and the first questioner sought to learn how the passing of this motion would affect the school system’s budget line items. Eizenberg said such decisions would involve going back to the individual schools, but that “what I can say is that given the lack of discretionary spending in the budget, that if this were to pass it would have frankly a supremely negative impact on service delivery and each child in the district.”

Town Meeting members spoke both in favor and against the motion. At least 1 member would like to see even bigger cuts, and another who didn’t plan to vote for it did express the feeling that “we are getting less good product for our money.” Another questioned the districts that Daws used for comparisons, noting that a number of them have fewer schools, and said the school system has been responsive to emerging demands. Another member disliked the idea of cutting the budget by an arbitrary amount.

Town Meeting Member Marlene Allen urged the community to look back at history, as she did with a 2011 town-wide financial play document from Town Meeting that year at a time following a long period of enrollment increases. The document discussed building in downward adjustments in the increasingly high school budget in anticipation of lower or flattening enrollment, but the schools wound up keeping its staff even as student numbers fell, she said. “Whether you like this specific amendment or not, it’s timely, it’s smart, let’s learn from the past and think about what’s going to happen when this period ends,” she said.

In the end, after about an hour of presentations and discussion,the motion failed to pass by a vote of 47 Yes, 151 No, 8 Abstain (see full Town Meeting scorecard).

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On to the main Motion 2 on Article 8

Town Meeting then returned to the main motion for the omnibus budget. The town presented a balanced operating budget totaling $201,363,593, with the proposed school budget at $87,832,188.

Town Meeting Member Michael D’Ortenzio kicked off the discussion with a question about the stormwater management portion of the Department of Public Works budget, seeking clarification on “how that money is going to flow” before Town Meeting later gets into whether to approve a new Enterprise Stormwater Utility Fund under Article 29 that the DPW anticipates needing $2.9M to support. His concern if the Fund is approved: That the town would be charging people twice for stormwater management during the first few months of 2024, both through real estate taxes and through the new separate stormwater fee. Wellesley Executive Director Meghan Jop explained several moving parts with funding, and that Town Meeting next year would consider as part of the FY25 omnibus budget the operational funding required as part of the DPW budget to support the stormwater fund after the DPW better understands those costs.

From there, discussion turned back to the school budget, with 1 Town Meeting member asking what it would take for the School Committee to settle its contract with the Wellesley Educators Association. The School Committee declined to respond, and as we heard on a hot mic a bit later in the evening, Supt. Dr. David Lussier was none too pleased that a question about the contract would even be allowed after an understanding had apparently been reached during an earlier meeting with the moderator. Following that, Moderator Kaplan shut down a few efforts to bring up collective bargaining. The School Committee did make a brief statement on its situation with the union during its original budget presentation the week before.

School leadership wasn’t completely able to control the collective bargaining narrative, however. The Wellesley Educators Association again made its presence felt inside and outside of the Middle School at Town Meeting on Monday, including through cheers during the meeting that they were asked by the moderator to curtail, per meeting rules about “no hissing, booing, or applause.”

wea protest town meeting week 2
Photo courtesy of Michael Tobin

More questions directed toward the school representatives included 1 about how many students in town attend vocational tech schools (just 1) and another had to do with whether more elementary schools might be closed down the road if there’s a lot of spare capacity at the 2 new schools (nothing definitive on that front). In response to a question of whether the town might realize an infusion of funds by selling the Upham property, School Committee Chair said there are no plans to sell that.

Several Town Meeting members shared their experiences, including those of a longtime teaching assistant/substitute and of a mother whose son has struggled with anxiety, in an effort to encourage support for teachers and staff. Several also shared their concern about what would happen if the budget got voted down, and Town Counsel Tom Harrington said the Select Board would then need to figure things out, possibly calling another Town Meeting to get it done.

Town Meeting Member Jeff Wechsler, who dared not utter “the thing I want to mention” after hearing the moderator prohibit that, encouraged fellow residents to engage with the School Committee earlier in the process at its meetings the next time around. “We cannot keep doing this every year,” he said. “If we want to have a different result, we need to change the process.” (Some said they have attempted to do this, without feeling they’ve made an impact.)

In the end, the motion for the budget passed by a vote of 124/69/6.

On April 5, the day after Town Meeting concluded for the week, the School Committee sent a memo to the “WPS Community” summarizing that on Monday at Town Meeting “there was a great deal of discussion and debate about the context for this budget, including declining enrollment, increased costs of services, and proposed investments in our schools.  There was little question that the status of contract negotiations was in the forefront of everyone’s mind.”

“While Town Meeting surfaced various perspectives with regard to the school district, it is clear that we collectively care about our students and understand the vital role that our educators and support staff play in ensuring a high quality education for all students.  We also want to acknowledge how unsettling this moment feels with an unresolved contract, which we know has affected the climate within our school community.”

The School Committee concluded that “We believe all of the pieces are in place to settle the contract in the coming days…”

If Draft Kings ever got ahold of Town Meeting

The test question on night #3, to make sure the electronic voting devices were working, was whether UConn or San Diego State would win the men’s collegiate basketball championship that night. After the results were in, correctly indicating the Huskies would win, Kaplan quipped about members going to Draft Kings, the online betting service, with the newfound intelligence. Not that we’re advocating this, but just imagine if there were betting lines on Town Meeting articles and how much more interest there might be in the action if so…

Weston Road project delayed

Moderator Kaplan shared breaking news early during the April 4 Town Meeting that Article 18, which would authorize and appropriate the borrowing of $3.5M to pay for reconstruction and repair of Weston Road, was being scrapped.

National Grid, which works in mysterious ways, recently informed the town it plans to do gas line replacement work on Weston Road this summer (we dealt with something similar in our neighborhood last summer when Eversource, which also works in mysterious ways, descended on our streets for a similar purpose). As a result of the National Grid work, Wellesley will put off its Weston Road work until fiscal year ’25, Kaplan said.

Town Engineer David Hickey, in discussing the Department of Public Works’ planned Weston Road project earlier this year, said then that the well-traveled Wellesley Road hasn’t had a full repaving since the 1980s.

We’re curious how the new luxury condo development at 148 Weston Road, where those marketing the project refer to “discerning clientele who demand quality in construction, appreciate elegance of design, and value attention to detail,” will enjoy what looks like it could be 2 big construction projects along Weston Road over the next 2 years.

Revisiting the 40R housing developments at Wellesley Park

Night #4 of Town Meeting lacked the drama of earlier sessions, but progress was made on several fronts, including the housing developments at Wellesley Office Park (now being marketed by property owner John Hancock/Manulife as just plain “Wellesley Park”) and Community Preservation Committee funding initiatives.

Two thirds of the 3-hour meeting were devoted to Article 41, which focused on amending the zoning bylaw for this so-called 40R district that is now home to the 350-unit Nines apartment complex. After finding zero interest in building an allowed hotel at the property, John Hancock sought to have the town amend the bylaw so that it could instead build an additional 250 condo or apartment units (it already is allowed to build another 250 apartments beyond what’s in The Nines).

Executive Director Jop promoted the many benefits of this overall development (which got the town to the state-mandated affordable housing threshold) and the proposed additions in terms of state money that would flow to the town, new tax revenue for Wellesley, and new housing for those who can’t afford single-family homes here or who might be downsizing. The option to offer condos in this area could help meet the in-between market need—somewhere between formally-defined “affordable” pricing and standard $1M-plus single-family home and condo prices—that has been identified through surveys. Jop’s presentation included figures for municipal costs from these developments and net gains from taxes—the new 250 units are estimated to bring the town a net gain of $285K annually, not to mention millions more in one-time payments, such as for building permits. The developments at this property also will help Wellesley meet new state zoning requirements for communities near public transit—even though accessing public transit isn’t so easy from Wellesley Park despite some efforts to address that.

Jop also talked about the town’s vision for Wellesley Park, combined with the redevelopment by Beacon Properties of the nearby Wellesley Gateway and Park 9 office parks along Rte. 9/95, forming a sort of new neighborhood in which amenities could be shared and economies of scale could come into play for new transportation options. As is, The Nines is something of an “outpost,” as an attorney for the property owner has acknowledged. Small retail operations are allowed, and might even be subsidized by the property developers, but more people probably need to move there before such amenities emerge. There is a nice paved path between the development and the Charles River, but the property is missing other basics, like a playground.

Supporters of the amended bylaw included those who favor any new housing anywhere it can go in light of the state’s housing crisis as well as those who pointed to the fact that development there won’t involve the sort of clear-cutting we’ve seen in town on Weston Road and Great Plain Ave to make way for new housing.

Questions raised by Town Meeting members included those about whether the development agreement would allow for condos to be built before the next 250 rental units (yes) and whether a promised shuttle between the property and T stations is really going to happen anytime soon (not enough demand yet, Jop said). Concerns were also raised, despite the revenue boost that developments at this property will bring the town, regarding the real costs of providing emergency services (fire, etc.) and supporting new students in the school system.

While some Town Meeting members said they generally supported Article 41, a lack of details prevented them from voting “Yes.” But overall, 168 did vote “Yes, while 22 voted “No,” and 2 abstained.

CPA funds go to bathrooms, North 40 work

Community Preservation Act funds, raised via a 1% property tax surcharge and matching state money, were the subject of Article 16’s motions.

Community Preservation Committee Chair Barbara McMahon noted that Wellesley is 1 of 194 communities in the CPC program, and that as the list grows, state matching will likely shrink per community in years to come. Wellesley’s FY22 CPC revenue was more than $2M.

Some $540K was appropriated for administrative and designated reserve needs, including that related to placing the CPA-funded portion of the North 40 property along Weston Road into a deed restriction. “We anticipate needing outside professional services to help with the process and in identifying what improvements or amenities might be possible on the portion of the land going to deed restriction,” she said. So there’s your rare North 40 update.

The bigger excitement was putting $200K toward a new bathroom facility at Sprague Fields. McMahon described the 2 gender-neutral stall building as being a smaller version of the 1 recently installed on the aqueduct at Hunnewell Field. It will go near the new lacrosse wall.

The CPC motions passed easily.

Equity audit discussion to be continued

Night #4 of Town Meeting ended with the presentation of Article 17, which seeks approval for $100K to fund an equity audit and for adoption of an anti-racism and anti-bias resolution. Proponents have made the rounds with many town boards about this in recent months in an effort to garner widespread support ahead of Town Meeting, and hired a consultant to give an online presentation focused on the dangers of structural racism and bias. Desired outcomes of the audit include gaining a better understanding of “the experiences of those who feel marginalized and systemically disadvantaged” and barriers to service access in town.

Wellesley Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force Member Dr. Donna Stoddard said in concluding her remarks, “Let’s acknowledge this is a fairly homogenous town. Most of the residents are white and upper middle class, or affluent. I’ve lived in Wellesley for 37 years, and my experience has frankly been a little different than yours. One the one hand, I’ve really enjoyed living in Wellesley, it’s been a great place for me to raise my three kids… however, we feel at times that we have been subjected to microaggressions, insulted, discriminated against, or ignored because we are Black. And as a member of the Freedom Team, I have heard about incidents that have happened to many, many Wellesley residents and visitors to this town…” Stoddard described Article 17 as “an historic opportunity for the town” to take action to become much better.

A show of hands from Town Meeting members indicated an appetite for more discussion on the topic, and that discussion will be continued until April 10, when Town Meeting resumes.

More: Town Meeting Week #1 recap