Framingham, MA Schools & Parents Struggle with Tough Budget Choices

I recently participated in a panel discussion sponsored by members of the “Save Our Schools” campaign in Framingham, MA, as an expert on the federal budget process and the impact of the recession on communities.

Like most cities and towns in Massachusetts and across the country, Framingham has been experiencing budgetary shortfalls in recent years that have forced community leaders to make some very hard choices about how to provide critical services while staying within their budgetary means. And as in other communities, after several years of austerity, the fat has long ago been cut from the city’s budget, much of the meat is gone, and the budgetary knife is hitting the bone.

Framingham’s Fiscal Year 2011 “Current Services” budget estimate for education is roughly $96 million. The “Current Services” budget is the amount of money needed to provide exactly the same level of service as is currently in place – same number of teachers and staff, same programs, same budget for school materials, etc. Framingham’s shortfall for education was $6 million below the Current Services level, a reduction of more than six percent.

This shortfall made it necessary for the Framingham school system to make a lot of cuts across a broad range of programs, including teachers and teachers’ aides, literacy specialists and language teachers. Among the schools’ health care professionals a nurse, a social worker, and a school psychologist were cut. The head of the middle school music department was eliminated, as was all instrumental education in the elementary schools.  And so on.

One of the most troubling cuts to the parents of school-age children in Framingham were the proposed changes in the school’s busing program. The plan included the reduction of ten buses from the system’s fleet, necessitating a reduction of services. The cuts will save an estimated $500,000.

As of the start of the new school year, students in Kindergarten through 6th grade who live more than two miles from school will be eligible for free transportation. Students in grades 7-12 who live more than two miles for school will be eligible to ride the bus but must pay a fee of $270 a year.

Students in grades K-12 who live less than two miles from their school are ineligible to ride the bus.

The School Committee has stated that once they know the total number of eligible students (free or fee-paying) who are actually riding the bus, they will offer any remaining seats to “ineligible” students at the $270 fee. But the School Committee’s website cautions that “purchase of seats for ineligible riders will be extremely limited, if available at all.” School Superintendent Steven Hiersche said the schools will be able to restore two or three of the ten buses later this month as the result of fees collected.

Going back through the clippings from Framingham’s local newspapers, it’s clear that both the lack of transportation within the two mile radius and the proposed ridership fee pose challenges to some parents.

Yet a citizen petition to bring back more school buses failed 89-40 by ballot vote at a recent special Town Meeting. The petition would have taken $270,000 from the city’s stabilization fund to reinstate bus service to students who live within 2 miles of school. Prior to the Town Meeting, the school committee voted 6-0 (with one abstention) not to support the petition.

Needless to say, many parents are upset. But it’s important to point out that Framingham’s plan is in compliance with Massachusetts law, which does not require the busing of students who live less than two miles from school. And Superintendent Hiersche has said that it is his hope that through the use of fees to add buses back, the city will be able to provide transportation for anyone who wants it. Hopefully he’s right. But the use of fees to support what is clearly a government function – the safe transportation of children to public schools – is troubling, particularly if the fees rise in the future.

As one concerned citizen (not a school parent, by the way) lamented to me at the panel discussion, “can you imagine a nine year-old walking home from school? Walking around who knows where?”