Acton school assessment may rise five times more than Boxborough's

The original School Committee's budget (discussed at last night's meeting, which I did not attend) proposes that Acton's assessment increase by 4.3%, while Boxborough's increase is proposed at 1.15%. That means Acton's assessment will be increasing at almost four times the rate of Boxborough's, and twice the rate of inflation (which was around 2% in 2016).

I went online to review the handouts, and the administration lowered spending a bit prior to the "budget hearing." The bottom line now is a 3.4% budget increase, with an Acton assessment rising by 3.9% and a Boxborough assessment going up 0.8%. So now the disparity will be around 5x.

Just a few years ago, Acton's average single-family tax bill was comparable to Boxborough's. But because of the full regionalization of the School system, and the tax break given to Boxborough through an imbalanced assessment formula, Acton's average tax bill was $10,696 in 2016, compared to Boxborough's at $9,464. This disparity is likely to continue to get worse.

The difference in property taxes and home values appears to be directly related to the decision to give Boxborough taxpayers an annual subsidy, even though Boxborough is a (slightly) wealthier town. But even rich people like to have someone else pick up the tab whenever possible.

Despite the funding inequity, the spending increase in the school budget is well above inflation. And with inflation close to zero over the past few years, budgets have continued to rise much faster.

What is most surprising is that these budget and assessment increases are coming during a time of declining enrollment. The student population is down by several hundred across the system, yet the school administration and School Committee are unable to control the increases, thereby asking taxpayers to fund increases higher than many of their wage increases in the private sector.

Let me offer belated congratulations to all the voters who approved expanding the School District's region at Town Meeting when several speakers, myself included, complained about the unfair assessment formula. Some savings Acton taxpayers are reaping!

Here are some specifics from the budget overview:

The salary line item is going up 3.44% in one year. This line-item captures retirements, meaning that anyone who was paid say $105,000 and retires, and is replaced by someone being paid $50,000, will reduce the salary line item by $55,000. So in practice, if the line item is going up 3.44%, that means that the average raise for a full-time employee is probably closer to four or five percent.

In a note, this also includes some "new positions." This means that staff is increasing during a time of enrollment decreasing. Why is that happening? Can't we move a few FTEs from "teacher" to whatever support position is in need?

Here's another interesting statistic. The School reports 750 FTEs and a salary line expense of $54 million. That works out to an average FTE salary of $72,000 a year. For most employees, this is for working about nine months a year, and includes great benefits and union membership, which is job security. Well, it's for the children, just keep repeating that.

Here's another trick that the School uses. Included in capital cost is $450,000 to replace the Leary Field turf. So the School spends a ton of money, then is able to use Leary Field to generate revenue, which is not all reported back as income. Some of it probably goes to "Community Ed," for example. So the expenses are right in the budget, but the income is "off budget." How much income are the popular new "Lower Fields" generating and how much positive cash flow has been received? Where is the income line item in the budget for that?

Here's another nugget of info: Teachers' average salary increase is 2.8%. Central administrators' average increase is 5.2%.

There has been little if any "pushback" on these annual budget increases by our Finance Committee. Acton's FinCom has expressly rejected the role of "budget watchdog" and instead embraced the role of "budget lapdog." It dutifully attends "Acton Leadership Group" meetings and enjoys the warm embrace of the members of the Board of Selectmen and School Committee, and the town and school employee managers, who are laser focused on preserving their funding and tax support. Too bad FinCom would rather be friends with the spenders than with the taxpayers.

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