June 25, 2007



'Planning tool' in works to make tax hikes more palatable

By Nick Pinto
Staff Writer

NEWBURYPORT - School Committee members plan to spend the rest of the summer devising a tool to help them make spending projections looking as far as 10 years into the future.
The concept is new for Newburyport, but school officials say voters have made it clear that they won't support tax hikes if the schools can't provide a long-term vision for educating Newburyport students.

Committee members Gordy Bechtel and Dana Hooper are working together with school administrators to build a spreadsheet that will allow them to anticipate the potential impact of uncontrollable factors like inflation, energy costs and student enrollment. They also want to examine the effect of changing things like class size, teacher work load, salaries and energy consumption.

"It's not going to be exactly precise, especially when you start to look further out," Bechtel said. "But if we can get within 10 percent it's still a very useful tool."

The move comes on the heels of a failed attempt last month to raise taxes by $1.6 million to support the schools. By a 60-40 margin, voters overwhelmingly rejected the tax hike. The School Committee was criticized by some for failing to come up with a long-term plan for managing the money it spends educating the 2,400 students in the city's public schools.

"At the end of last year, we finished up the budget and we wrote a letter to City Hall saying that an override was in our future," Bechtel said. "We knew the only way we get an override was if it was part of a longer-term plan. But we didn't get any traction working on that plan last summer, and this year's failed override proved how much we need that."

Determined not to make the same mistake twice, Bechtel and Hooper set out to build the model over this summer, using the committee's first full schedule of summer meetings to help refine it.

"This tool is going to show every piece of information and every assumption, so if someone has a question about why we're predicting something, they can go in and see why we're saying what we're saying," said Hooper.

School Committee Vice Chairman Steven Cole said the model will be a powerful aid in explaining the schools' finances to those who may not be familiar with the details.

"This is going to help us add more precision to our projections," Cole said. "People want to see where the dollars are going to go, and this is going to help us show them."

Implicit in this project is the recognition that school advocates will need to do a better job in persuading residents of the schools' financial needs if they are to have any hope of passing an override.

Superintendent Kevin Lyons recommended that Hooper and Bechtel speak to Phil Totino, a retired chief financial officer at Intel and a member of the School Committee in Hopkinton, where Lyons worked as an assistant superintendent. Totino has developed a budget projection model that works well for Hopkinton. Hooper and Bechtel are using his work as a point of departure for their own modeling system.

With dramatic changes to the district's structure and little past experience with this kind of modeling, Bechtel acknowledged that the School Committee may face challenges in its early efforts to see into the district's financial future, but he said he is undeterred.

"We're going to keep refining it, and it's only going to get better over time," he said. "This is a tool that we're always going to be glad we have."


(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)

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