Editorial: Voters should be getting in on talks pertaining to funding education

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Yet another Franklin County school is feeling the pressure of contracting enrollments and state aid. This time it’s Fisher Hill School in Orange.

After evaluating the proposed budget for next school year, Orange Elementary School Committee has proposed decreasing the number of classes to three each for kindergarten, first grade and second grades at Fisher Hill. The proposal would also cut one full section of preschool. This could leave classroom sizes up to 23 or 24 students, which has many Orange parents worried that will hurt the quality of education at an early and important time in the lives of their children.

One such parent, Tara Coliadis, warned the school board recently that she is considering sending her child to another school via School Choice. Shifts like that, while understandable on an individual basis, can also hurt the school district as a whole as money shifts from local schools to other districts. Losing too many students to School Choice only exacerbates the declining enrollment problem.

Another parent suggested charging for preschool as a way to raise extra money to obviate the budgetary need to cut classes next year.

Current enrollment at Fisher Hill for next year’s kindergarten students is 61, while the first and second grades have 71 students enrolled. Those numbers could change between now and summer and affect the class size calculus, but the school board and the town have to make their financial decisions this spring.

Parents and community members argue an increase of class sizes could hurt special education students and students with previous behavioral issues. Some contend younger students need more attention and that larger classes could leave some students without the care they need. Others cite student safety concerns.

School officials have tried to reassure parents that the care and education of their children won’t be hurt if classes get larger.

“We aren’t talking about reducing services to children that are already getting services, or children that are going to need services,” said Amy White, a school committee member.

Total school spending is proposed to increase 2.71 percent from this year, totaling $6,610,796. But state aid is only projected to increase $12,100, which means most of any increased school spending has to come from local taxes, which must support school and all the other municipal services like police, fire and public works.

White urged parents to communicate their apprehension to municipal leaders.

“I can’t express how important it is for everyone to go to the Finance Committee and the Town Meeting annually and speak about how important our schools are,” White said. “Because, they don’t know how all of you feel without all of you going.”

Assuming the school budget has been carefully and frugally prepared, the 2.71 spending hike is a reasonable one. But avoiding the larger class sizes would add to that spending increase. That extra money would most likely have to come from some other part of town services. Ultimately, it becomes a matter of priorities that the town’s taxpaying voters will have to settle.

So, the school board’s encouragement to make your views known about education funding makes perfect sense, but it also makes sense for all voters to make their voices heard at Town Meeting, so that the town collectively can make the best and smartest decisions for themselves and their children.