ORLEANS — The elementary school committee voted March 15 to approve a $5,505,818 budget for the fiscal year beginning in July, a 1.47 percent increase that’s well within the cap that the town asked be observed.
That decision was almost overshadowed by member Josh Stewart’s response to remarks by planning board member Brian Sosner, which Sosner made as a private citizen during public comment at the select board’s meeting last week.
“When you look at the budget, one of the elephants in the room is clearly the school budget,” Sosner said March 10. “For now, my focus is on Orleans Elementary. The reality is the elementary school population has gone from 225 to 175 in just over two years. Meanwhile, the budget has increased 15 percent during that time. We are paying $30,000 per pupil with a $5.5 million budget.”
Sosner said the student to teacher ratio is 4 to 1. “This needs to be rectified,” he said. “As bad as that is, it’s going to get worse. The statistics I sent you show that in two years the school population will go down to 160, and two years after that 126… At some point, you just have to say you we just can’t do this anymore. You have to find that level of school budget where you’re right-sizing to population and enrollment.”
Orleans Elementary “has always been a great school,” said Sosner. “The fact is, the school was excellent three years ago when the per pupil spend was $22,000. If your stated goal is to, say, get to $22,000, you’d save a million and a half dollars off the budget.”
That didn’t add up for Stewart, a teacher at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School who taught math there for 14 years. He’s also a member of the Nauset Regional School Committee.
“The high school building project has kicked up lots – I won’t say lots – has kicked up people who want to pick apart some budgets,” he said at the elementary committee’s meeting March 15. “Most recently, we heard some concern over the Orleans Elementary budget at a selectmen’s meeting, people starting to grumble about our per pupil expenditure.
“It’s really important that school budgets are not simple fractions. Numerators and denominators are not the same. One student might move through years with little cost and another could cost over $100,000 a year. There’s this perception that a growing per pupil cost for OES means becoming more expensive. It really is as simple as we’ve got fewer kids. It doesn’t mean we should have fewer teachers.”
Turning the meeting into a classroom, Stewart offered “some very quick math. If we had six grades with 40 kids per grade, two groups of 20 in each grade, with a $4 million budget, our pupil costs would be about $16,000. If you drop down to 30 per grade, 180 kids, close to where we are now, the per pupil expenditure goes up to $22,000, and people start wondering what’s going on over there.”
But “we can’t remove teachers,” said Stewart. “(We can’t) put 40 kids into a single classroom.”
At last week’s select board meeting, resident Larry Diaz compared the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education 2019 percentile rankings of Nauset High with 11 high schools averaging about 708 students, which he said approximated the enrollment Nauset High would have without school choice students. Those other schools ranked higher than Nauset in levels of growth toward meeting academic goals, prompting Diaz to state that a scaled-down Nauset High without choice students could “significantly reduce its financial costs at no detriment to the quality of the educational experience.”
Although Monday’s elementary committee meeting included a public hearing on the fiscal year 2022 budget, no member of the public raised a question. “For people with concerns about per pupil costs and the budget, I wish they would show up and talk to us, and dive a little deeper,” Stewart said. “The greatest thing we can do to reduce per pupil cost is to create a town more embracing to kids, giving more opportunities to young people to start businesses and build affordable homes. A lot can be done to reduce this cost, but it’s not reducing the number of teachers…. It is not as simple as sometimes these people think it is.”