By Ann Needle
In a year where the Nashoba District’s planned 2015/16 budget remains hotly debated, two candidates are running for the one open Stow seat on the Nashoba School Committee in May. Incumbent Maureen Busch has served for 6 years on the SC, and challenger Mark Jones is currently a member of the Stow Planning Board.
The Independent presented each candidate with four questions regarding their approaches to SC issues. Each was asked to keep their responses within the same word limits for each question. The responses are published below as received and unedited.
I am Maureen Busch, the incumbent School committee representative running for re-election. I have been a resident of Stow for 30 years, and my children all attended our local schools. I believe that education is the most important service our town provides after public safety (fire, police, etc.), and that it is the responsibility of all of us to provide the best education within our means for all our children. I have been involved with our schools in a number of ways before becoming a member of School Committee. I served as a parent representative on Pompo-Center School Council (five years, four as co-chair), and also on the Hale and Nashoba Regional School Councils. I have been a parent volunteer, substitute teacher, and instructional assistant. All of these have been opportunities to gain insights into the operations of our schools.
I am Mark Jones. I have lived in Stow for more than ten years, on Boxboro Road.
I presently am an elected member of the Stow Planning Board. I have also served as an Associate member of the Planning Board during the two prior years.
I desire to participate in the discussion at the School Committee level about how to offer the best possible education for our youth, while mindful of the need to do so effectively, creatively, and with financial efficiency.
The NRSD towns are in one of the fastest growing regions of the state, and my concerns about the growth of the three towns, led me to take an interest in helping the Nashoba School Committee to think well about how to resiliently handle likely growth of its school population, and to thoughtfully plan for the likely rise in staff and facilities to accommodate that growth.
Q: If you were the sole decision-maker on the proposed 2015/16 budget, what would you have changed, if anything?
Maureen Busch: If I were the sole decision-maker for the FY2016 budget, I would have made a few decisions differently than what the School Committee ultimately chose to do. I would have capped spending out of our Excess and Deficiency Fund (E & D, or “free cash”) at $1.2 million, not the $1.5 million that we voted to spend. Mr. King has warned repeatedly that the fund is not likely to be replenished at about $1 million at the end of this fiscal year. Unusually high bills for snow removal, heat, and special education are likely to consume excess funds from other line items. E & D, like a town’s free cash, is considered when determining bond ratings for borrowing, so I feel this was a high risk move. To make up this difference, I would have taken the Superintendent’s recommendation to eliminate two teaching positions in Lancaster. Although the classes would have been at the high end of acceptable, classes in Stow and Bolton have been as large or larger in some years. Because these were middle grades (fifth and sixth grades), I do not feel that there would have been the negative impact that would be experienced in the lower grades.
Mark Jones: A NRSD School Committee guideline (what would be a bylaw for a municipality) indicates a Budget Subcommittee shall work with the administration in developing the budget. I would constitute the Budget Subcommittee, to collaborate with the Administration immediately after the approval of the prior year’s budget. Consequently, the School Committee would have a full, detailed and advance understanding of the entire 52.6 million dollar budget from top to bottom and program by program.
In turn, the School Committee, and the member towns would be informed of the likely shape of the budget conversation many months in advance of its presentation, rather than the surprise that all parties had, including the School Committee, when the content of the budget was revealed by the Administration this year.
I would also start an annual commitment on the part of the NRSD to annually pay into a fund for retirees, for “Other Post-Employment Benefits” (OPEB), just as the three member towns have done. At present there is no annual NRSD commitment to reduce this burgeoning unfunded liability, which grows more than one million dollars a year, and totals well above $30 million dollars according to the most recent actuarial report.
Q: If the district had $1 million more to spend in the upcoming school year, what would you recommend doing with that money?
Maureen Busch: If the district had an additional $1 million to spend that was truly unrestricted, I would use it to enhance offerings. First, I would restore seventh grade foreign language. This valuable offering was cut during the budget crisis in FY2003 and has never been restored. I would structure it in such a way that we would be able to offer the choice of at least two languages in each middle school. Second, I would add two, possibly three, FTE teaching positions at the high school to enable the development of more cross-discipline courses, and to increase the offerings in business and technology. These cross-discipline courses, co-taught by two teachers and providing graduation credits in two areas (for example, science and history), are a way to engage students who are not as invested in the traditional offerings or who are less sure about where their interests lie. At the elementary level, I would look to the teachers and principals to identify any additional needs specific to each school and consider funding them.
Mark Jones: The NRSD needs to build into its plans operations and facilities future-oriented resiliency that can serve a variety of unmet needs of its school population.
The HS needs more classrooms, and it needs to handle population growth in the district. It also must meet an unfunded and rapidly growing burden of retirement health care costs, that is rising over a million dollars a year.
Each of these items are long-term needs, and one million dollars will not begin to scratch the likely cost of the need.
I would split the funds three ways.
500,000 for four more modular classrooms at the High School,
250,000 for beginning to fund the unfunded OPEB liability
250,000 to restore one-time expenditure of funds of budgeted from the Excess and Deficiency Funds (which in municipal speak are considered free cash, available for sudden unplanned financial events).
Q: Nashoba Regional High School is running out of space. What would you say to taxpayers wary of increased taxes due to building/renovation costs?
Maureen Busch: First, I would like to remind everyone that I am also a taxpayer; any tax increase due to building/renovation costs will hit my family just as hard as they will hit every other tax-paying household. Nashoba Regional was built roughly fifty-five years ago, with an addition in the early 1970s, and a renovation in the early 2000s. Over the years, space needs and educational philosophies have evolved, and with that, our utilization of space has changed. For example, in 1960, who could have imagined the need for dedicated computer lab space? In addition, the building is showing the wear and tear of over fifty years of use. Although a task force has been examining the space needs for the high school, the school committee itself has not even begun weighing the options, so I believe we are more than a few years away from funding any kind of project. I will work to restrict the scope of any such project and will advocate restraint. I do not want to see us building more than we need with every extra amenity imaginable. In addition, I will work to look for additional sources of funding to reduce the tax burden.
Mark Jones: I have attended the HS Space Study Task Force meetings for more than a year, and we carefully examined the capacity of the High School and its curriculum programs. It is clear the school capacity is less than 1,000, and not 1,250, as the Administration has estimated for the last ten years. The present HS population is about 1,085.
Task Force members estimate that at least six additional classrooms are needed to properly house the present population and curriculum program. This does not take into account future growth of the three towns caused by new housing subdivisions, nor the turnover of empty-nest households.
I support the recent School Committee’s decision to end school choice at the High School. The decision allows the 100 HS choice population to likely drop by approximately 15 a year over each of the next four years. I also support the School committee’s decision to install two modular classrooms to partially handle the pent-up demand for classroom space.
I continue to participate in careful review and investigation of choices for how to modify the facility in a financially sound way, to deal with present needs, and growth of the HS.
Q: What do you feel can be done to improve communication between the School District and the Town Government?
Maureen Busch: There are a few things that could be done to improve communication between the School District and the town governments. First, School Committee agendas and links to supporting documents (Meeting Packets) should be emailed to the Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee, and Town Administrator, with any budget-impacting items noted. This would take the burden off the town officials to remember to go looking for information to see if there is anything to be aware of. Second, the district representatives should be invited to the table as equals at Tri-Town meetings. The schools are the largest single expense in the town budgets, as is true for most municipalities, and so the district and the town governments need to work as true partners in addressing the financial aspects of the district and its impact on the towns. Finally, both the district and the towns need to work harder at fostering an attitude of mutual respect and trust in each other that we are doing our best to offer an excellent education while being mindful of fiscal realities.
Mark Jones: The School Committee could appoint a member liaison to each of its member town boards of Selectmen, to meet monthly to update the town leadership about the activities and issues that the NRSD is discussing and planning for. The School Committee should continue to meet on a night that does not conflict with any of the three towns’ Selectmen meeting times.
The School Committee could direct the administration to conduct regular meetings with town administrators and other town leadership, to enhance habits of of communication.
If the School Budget is actively worked on throughout the year, as I suggest above, with regular updates being reported out by the School Budget Subcommittee, there will be ample occasion to discuss the progress so far with town leadership and financial committees.
Less formal one-on-one conversations are also desirable. I would be interested in undertaking that kind of liaison activity in Stow as well. It is important for all parties to have a joint and continuing discussion about the tax resources relied upon by both the towns and the schools for their operations, and the consequences of rising costs and population for all municipal and school activities.
Maureen Busch: In conclusion, I hope that the voters will continue to support me as their representative on School Committee. I am very grateful to those who have served before me, and appreciate that they were the guardians of education as my children were going through the schools. I feel that it is my duty to “pay it forward” and work to make our schools the best they can be for future generations. I saw drastic changes and improvements in our schools from the time my first child went through until the time my last went through the schools, and I believe we can improve even more. I believe that we must strive to offer the best we can for all our students within our ability to do so.
Mark Jones: I would bring valuable skills and perspective to the Nashoba School Committee. My professional life over the last 30 years has encompassed a wide variety of accounting, financial management, budgeting, and administration work with businesses and non-profit organizations.
To the best of my knowledge, none of present School Committee members have an accounting or financial background. I would like to collaborate with the Administration toward deeply understanding all of the programs and facilities in the District, with the perspective of obtaining the best value possible from the tax dollar.
This is all with the intent to serve the youth of our towns well, while also attentive to the limited resources available to fund the schools.
I believe that I can aid the entire School Committee to better understand its budget, and the multi-year consequences of decisions about curriculum, staff, operations, and facilities, as well also give useful perspective on important financial commitments.
I look forward to working together with other members of the School Committee, the Administration, and the leadership of the three towns to discuss the challenging decisions that must be made over the next few years.