The School Board will be presenting data at Saturday’s meeting that is intended to make the point that school spending has been increasing at a very reasonable rate. There is a small grain of truth to that; but it ignores some very important realities.
The WLC school budget over the past 10 years has generally been in the $11 million to $12.5 million range. But it is very deceiving to look at the bottom line budget numbers without understanding the role of student enrollment and state aid and the consequences for local taxpayers.
This year’s proposed budget is approximately $12.3 million. If we divide that by the current number of students we get a per-student cost of $23,384. As a point of comparison, that’s about $500 short of the average out-of-state tuition for a 4-year public college in the United States. UNH charges $17,624 per year for in-state students.
How did we end up in this situation?
The WLC School District receives about $3900 per student in “aid” from the state for children in grades 1 through 12. (The number is $1800 for half-day Kindergarten students, and if full-day Kindergarten passes, the number will be $2900 for Kindergarten students.)
As we look at budgets over time, we need to consider the size of the student population we are serving. On October 1st, 2008, WLC had 731 students. Today that number is 526 students. That’s a 28% decline over 10.5 years. Demographic studies indicate that throughout New England, there is likely to be a continued decline in student enrollments.
While there are some expenses that do not “scale down” as the number of students decreases, there are other expenses that can (and should) be reduced as we serve a significantly smaller population.
As the student population declines, we receive less aid. The drop in student population over the past 10 years has resulted in a reduction of almost $800,000 in annual state aid. It is arguably reasonable to say that “the school Board didn’t cause that”. But neither did local taxpayers. So what is to be done? Continued property tax increases of more than 3 times the rate of inflation are not sustainable.
The Board and the Administration needs to work together on aggressively managing the budget given the reality of declining demographics. We will be faced with increasing budget pressure and increasingly difficult decisions. So why would we choose to add a new program at this time that will add costs to our budget every year into the foreseeable future? Adding full-day Kindergarten makes it harder to manage a budget situation that is getting more and more challenging.