Dracut has so much to be proud of in the academic performance of its students and in extracurricular activities. It is amazing to watch our students excel and demonstrate their great potential. Our teachers and administrators often demonstrate immense commitment to support the development of students. Their brilliance is manifest in the students’ accomplishments and in our ever-improving school system.
Even with all this effort and its many resulting accomplishments, Dracut is a school system suffering from deep financial underfunding. The school district lies at the bottom rank in school funding when compared in 2010 to other towns and cities in the state — fifth from the bottom. Among 328 school districts, Dracut spends less per student than almost all the rest.
I know more than a few parents who are embarrassed about this placement. They wonder why funding for education in Dracut — about $9,600 per students — is so far below the state average of $13,400. We spend the bare minimum that the state law requires for the Town of Dracut to contribute, while some cities and towns pay almost twice the state average.
The impact of limited funding for schools is immense but this seems to be a fact that many individuals in town are unaware of. First and foremost, education funding pays for staffing (almost 80 percent, as in most districts). Second, funding pays for leadership and provides support for instruction. Third, it pays for operations, maintenance and other critical items to support technology and professional development.
These secondary levels of funding exist in Dracut only at bare minimum levels. These are areas where we struggle to meet minimum needs of the system, not to mention the prospect of keeping up with reasonable or current standards of practice. We limp along without enough teachers for the classrooms and relics like phones from decades long gone. We take hand-me-down computers gratefully and beg for tens of thousands of dollars in free books from friendly agencies and vendors who are sensitive to our plight.
We photocopy materials far more often than we would like to. Our students need more workbooks. Our information management systems are antiquated and offer little value to our parents and students. Our technology infrastructure will need a complete overhaul within the next two years.
In recent years, the basic cost for running the Dracut public schools has increased almost 7 percent each year. Basic costs include utilities, contracted increases in salaries and other unavoidable costs. This does not include across-the-board pay raises, programmatic needs, unexpected special education tuition increases and unfunded mandated training and services.
With rising costs, there is little choice but to cut necessary staffing and needed services to balance the budget. We are short the minimum number of teachers needed to manage a normal schedule in the upper grade levels. Class size is increasing at the lower levels. We do not have enough nurses, health teachers or guidance counselors. We were forced to trim the FY11 budget everywhere to dangerous low levels to present a balanced budget in June 2011.
Spending was bound to be challenging this year due to the many forces which drive up costs in areas such as utilities, teaching materials, professional development, substitutes and external tuitions. On top of that, many grants were reduced this year in ways that we could not prevent or prepare for. Level funding for Dracut Public Schools translated into about a $2 million decrease in funding given the normal increases in costs year to year.
No matter how we look at it, even if some of these costs were avoidable, there is a consistent erosion of the basis for educational funding in Dracut. This constant decay makes it difficult and impossible to include expenditures for the training and development of staff that are not only essential but often mandated. Improving the quality of instruction is nearly impossible without spending several times what we now expend on professional development.
The limited training that occurs ensures that there is insufficient clarity on practices, procedures and policies that are mandated by law. This places us at risk for legal non-compliance when we underserve our students and staff. The struggle at the leadership level is very visible in buildings that have more than 600 students but are run without assistant principals. The daily operation of the system is a struggle given the constant juggling of funds to make ends meet.
What we are experiencing in terms of the juggling to make ends meet is a challenge most district are facing. We will make every effort to end the year in the black, and once again balance the budget. But, we should be careful not to ignore the impact on the classroom and the district of inadequate funding to effectively run the system. We will be fiscally conservative in our spending but our students deserve a more adequate and appropriate budget that will help us educate them for their lives in the 21st century.
In an upcoming column, I will offer detail on the FY13 budget projections and further explain some of the problems we will face without a new, robust strategy for funding schools in Dracut.
Stacy Scott is the superintendent of the Dracut public schools.