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With layoffs looming, teachers union clashes with town officials over school funding

A classroom at the Driscoll School. Photo by Sam Mintz
March 26, 2024

A plan to trim $2.4 million from Brookline’s schools budget for fiscal year 2025 has raised questions about the town’s financial priorities and led to a fierce debate that has pitted top town officials against the union representing teachers.

At the center of the argument is the question, pushed by the teachers union, of whether the town should take money from its reserves to fund a deficit in the school budget in order to avoid layoffs and save the K-5 world language program from elimination or sharp cuts. Town officials say doing so would be fiscally irresponsible and could threaten the town’s AAA bond rating, potentially making it more expensive for the town to borrow money down the line.

The Brookline Educators Union launched a letter-writing campaign in which more than 100 people wrote emails to town leaders arguing that warnings of a budget crunch were “a manufactured crisis.” Town leaders shot back at last Tuesday’s Select Board meeting, with Town Administrator Charles Carey saying the letters represented “confusion or misinformation” about the town’s budget process and Select Board member Paul Warren calling the letters “a public smear.”

Under a decades-long agreement, the town allocates funding for the school system every year during the budget planning process. For fiscal 2025, which starts on July 1 of this year, the town allocated $136.4 million for the schools, a 4.4% increase from the fiscal 2024 schools budget and about 59% of the town’s overall budget.

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The school department’s budget request was $138.6 million, more than $2 million higher than the allocation from the town. That led the School Committee, which sends a final schools budget to Town Meeting, to ask district leaders to propose cuts.

The committee is slated to make a final decision on Thursday about those cuts, which include the possibility of eliminating 12.6 full-time world language teaching positions, four elementary school literacy coaches, four education technology specialists, and an undetermined position at the high school.

“The union is pretty stunned at the proposal for so many cuts to programs and positions,” Justin Brown, president of the Brookline Educators Union, said in an interview.

“We’re fighting back and rejecting the needs for any cuts, given what we see as financial resources that are available to fill the $2.5 million dollar gap that exists. First and foremost, we’re fighting on behalf of our members who are slated to lose jobs,” Brown said.

He and other union members say those resources exist in the form of the town’s reserve funds, such as the $25 million categorized as free cash, which the town uses for non-recurring, non-operational expenses.

In the email sent in its letter-writing campaign, the BEU accused town leaders of “a manufactured crisis, borne out of a willingness to appease the desires of fiscal hawks for ever-increasing reserves over maintaining the health of our schools.”

The letter urged the town to reallocate money to avoid the planned cuts, which Brown said undermine what educators, community members and voters want “for a healthy school system.”

At last week’s Select Board meeting, Carey, the town administrator, said it is “untrue” that Brookline’s reserves are healthy or sufficient.

Moody’s, the bond rating agency that gives out a grade [similar to a credit score] for cities and towns, recently told Brookline that it should increase its reserves to maintain its AAA rating, Carey said. Brookline is one of only 13 municipalities in Massachusetts that has a AAA rating.

“Our AAA bond rating is critical to maintaining our borrowing power and low interest rates. If we lose it, taxpayers will pay more to service our significant debt burden, which will mean less money for the schools and other municipal operations at a time when costs are only growing,” Carey said.

“The School Department is not being singled out or having its budget cut by the Select Board,” he said. “All of us are having to make hard decisions in an environment where expenses outstrip revenues to ensure that Brookline continues to provide the level of service its residents have come to expect.”

Select Board member Warren spoke at the meeting in stronger terms about the letter from union members.

“I found it offensive. A public smear, and a lie,” he said, pointing to the part of the letter that claimed that Carey is responsible for the cuts. ”It’s false, it’s untrue, it’s unfair, it’s utterly disrespectful of the hard work [of Carey], who’s been incredibly collaborative with this group, with the public schools, and many people in town.”

The next School Committee meeting is on Thursday, March 28 at 6 p.m. Its agenda includes “possible votes on the FY 2025 Budget Request.” Members of the public can attend in-person at Town Hall or watch via Brookline Interactive Group.