Participants in a recent Your Town Newton online chat had plenty of questions about the $11.4 million override of Proposition 2½ that Newton residents will vote on on March 12. The proposed tax increase will pay for buildings, roads, and additional teachers and police officers. Here are a few of the questions and the answers from city officials and others familiar with Newton’s finances.
How do we know these school projects will be different from Newton North?
Mayor Setti Warren and other elected city officials have repeatedly assured voters that the school building process has changed significantly since the construction of Newton North High School, which was marred by ballooning costs and became the most expensive school ever built in the state.
Most importantly, override advocates say, the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which partners with and oversees many school projects, has tightened up its controls and requirements.
Newton plans use state money as well as $3-million in override money on the Angier and Cabot elementary school projects. The city intends to expand Zervas Elementary School without any state aid.
“We’re looking at the most cost-effective way to build a school,” said Matt Donovan, a spokesman for the authority. “We were created to rein in the excess.”
For example, the authority suspended funding of the new Concord-Carlisle High School project last year after its scope and budget grew beyond what the state had agreed to earlier. The district has since scaled back its plans.
However, the Angier and Cabot schools are still in the early stages of planning and the city does not have detailed cost estimates for the schools or agreements with the state on what will be funded. The Angier feasibility study is scheduled to be completed in June. The city just completed an application to the authority to help fund the Cabot project, the first step in the state’s lengthy school construction process.
Officials with Warren’s administration said they intend to stay within the proposed budgets for the schools.
Why are we still paying to educate Boston school students when we can’t pay our own bills? Why doesn’t Boston compensate us for the full cost of educating their kids?
The district’s growing enrollment is not tied to Metco, the program that buses students from Boston to Newton, district officials said.
The permanent tax increases are specifically aimed at dealing with the enrollment growth.
The ballot measure would expand Zervas Elementary School and direct $4.5 million toward hiring 51 new teachers and aides and pay for modular classrooms.
The district’s student population has grown by more than 910 in the past eight years, and is expected to add about 865 more by 2018. More families with children are moving into Newton, school district officials said, and even the city’s rental housing complexes are brimming with children. The city’s four largest rental housing complexes sent 279 students to Newton’s schools this year, an increase of 30 students over last year. The oldest of the four large units opened in 2003.
In the next five years, only three Newton schools will experience slight enrollment decreases. The rest will have more students.
However, the number of Boston students bused to Newton under the Metco program has remained stable at slightly more than 400 children.
Newton receives about $3 million from the state to educate Metco students, or about $7,400 per pupil. Newton spent $16,397 per pupil on education in 2011, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Newton school officials argue that the cost of participating in Metco is minimal since the city does not have to hire more teachers or build more classrooms for these students. The children enroll in kindergarten or first grade and are placed in schools with openings, said Sandra Guryan, a deputy superintendent.
Opponents of the tax increases dispute those calculations and argue that the state or Boston should increase the reimbursement to Newton.
What kinds of efficiencies has the city made that will reassure us that this override is really needed?
Newton Mayor Setti Warren has said his administration adopted several belt-tightening measures before asking voters for the $11.4 million tax increase in the overrides. For example, he renegotiated union contracts so they would be 2.5 percent growth to match the annual tax revenue increases the city expects. The city has also reduced expenses for utilities, gas, and other supplies, administration officials have said.
Simply reducing the growth rate is not enough, opponents of the March 12 ballot measures have argued.
“We’re not as impressed with the 2.5 percent growth figure,” said Joshua Norman, the cochairman of Moving Newton Forward, which opposes the overrides.
Malcolm Salter, the chairman of the 2009 Citizen’s Advisory Group, though, said that Warren has tackled many of the city’s most serious deficiencies.
During his term, Warren has tried to control compensation costs, identified and is addressing a backlog of capital needs, and has improved communication with the public, Salter said. Salter is a Warren supporter and has donated to the group advocating for the override.
However, Salter said, he would like to see Warren more rigorously evaluate what services the city provides and at what cost. Newton has not done a comprehensive review of whether to outsource certain services or how to ensure that road paving projects last. Nor has the city looked at incorporating more technology into its high school programs, Salter said.
“My sense is he’s done pretty well on these,” Salter said. “Would I push him more? Yeah.”
I think our citizens are generally unhappy with the poor condition of our roads, sidewalks, school, and municipal buildings.
While a significant portion of the proposed tax increases would pay for education and the fire stations, the city is asking voters to also approve an additional $1 million to fix cracked roads and buckled sidewalks.
The city should be spending $4.4 million a year to maintain its roads and sidewalks, but on average invests $1.7 million annually, said Bob Rooney, Newton’s chief operating officer.
If the override passes, the city will be able to pave some 20 roads, such as Lowell Avenue and Melrose Street, in the next fiscal year.
I wonder if the dozens of new businesses opening on Route 9 will help bring enough commercial tax revenue into the city to help our aging infrastructure?
The tax revenue from developments on Route 9, including Chestnut Hill Square and The Street, are already anticipated in the city’s budgeting plans and will help pay for Newton’s day-to-day operations, said Aaron Goldman, a city spokesman.
But the additional money from these developments could not cover the costs of the projects in the $11.4 million Proposition 2½ override.
Chestnut Hill Square, which includes the Wegmans grocery store, is expected to bring in $1.3 million to $1.5 million annually in tax revenue. And The Street, which is the site of the former Macy’s, should add about $400,000 in additional annual tax revenue, according to Maureen Lemieux, Newton’s chief financial officer.