NEW BEDFORD — For the second consecutive year, historic budget increases are coming to New Bedford Public Schools that administrators say will allow for the hiring of more teachers, counselors, and staff. The School Committee unanimously approved a bottom-line number of $237 million earlier this month, representing an over 10% increase from last year — a significant jump in funding for the city’s largest expense.

“Where’s the money going? It’s going to staff in school buildings,” said Andrew O’Leary, the financial manager who will become interim superintendent in July — the same time as the new funds kick in. O’Leary told the School Committee that New Bedford is poised for “stability” after tumultuous years of pandemic disruption and an even longer history of underfunding.

This year’s highlight, according to O’Leary, is that money slated for new school staff includes more nurses, paraprofessionals and counselors, in addition to more teachers. 

This investment comes as New Bedford is experiencing a rare trend of adequately funding its schools, which is allowing the district to build on progress from last year's historic budget increase, when the arts expanded into more middle schools and the district stepped up commitments to special education students.

Since the year 2000, New Bedford has failed to meet the state standard for funding its schools 16 times. That funding target — called Net School Spending, or NSS — determines how much money a district should spend to provide an adequate education, and between 2010 and 2020 New Bedford failed to meet it more than any other comprehensive district in Massachusetts, according to data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

However, since 2019 the state's school funding formula has offered more support to high-poverty and urban districts, and now New Bedford is looking forward to a third consecutive year of beating this NSS funding target.

Building on a trend from current Superintendent Thomas Anderson, the district will focus spending on increasing professional development opportunities, too. This is part of an overall strategy to improve teacher retention and effectiveness, according to district officials.

Paraprofessionals, for example, recently won more professional development days in a new contract agreement, and Anderson has proposed hiring an administrator solely responsible for organizing these and other development opportunities.

Pushes to hire new administrators, however, have been met with suspicion. The New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools (NBCSOS) has been one group opposed to the hiring of administrators, and has decried proposals for three new administrative positions, including one that will oversee "safety and security" measures.

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“Before hiring any additional managers within the New Bedford Public Schools, [we] believe it is essential to invest in classroom educators,” said Cara Busch, a NBCSOS member. 

In response, Anderson has shared comparative data that shows New Bedford now spends less on administrative positions (on a per pupil basis) than other Gateway Cities and nearby South Coast communities. Instead, New Bedford greatly outspends these peer districts on counseling and other student services.

Still, almost all parents, teachers, and community members have stated in public comments to the School Committee that they don't want more administrators. Hiring more in-school staff is a popular alternative, and in recent years that's exactly what has happened.

O'Leary said that the district has a near record number of employees. And the new state funding increases will help make that permanent. "We're in a place where we can comfortably handle this record number of employees," O'Leary said.

Key metric to watch: student enrollment

The number of students enrolled in Massachusetts public schools has decreased in recent years, with a notable one-year exodus taking place during the pandemic. This, coupled with declining birth rates in the state, has led to concerns about long-term school funding, which is mostly determined by how many students are in classrooms.

Unlike districts such as Boston, Dartmouth, and Westport, the enrollment in New Bedford Public Schools has remained relatively steady. However, there were 500 fewer kindergarteners enrolled in New Bedford last year than there were five years ago.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) undertook a comprehensive study of enrollment trends in New Bedford while preparing to assist the district with building a new DeValles Elementary School. The agency projected that in 10 years the district would have 1,000 fewer students than it does today, which would be a 9% reduction in school population.

If such declines came to pass, that would spell hardship for a district that is paying a record number of employees, including supporting the runaway costs of health insurance.

O'Leary said that it's hard to know future enrollment trends, especially in New Bedford, where long-awaited economic developments (like the new MBTA rail project and the arrival of the new offshore wind industry) could alter the city's landscape. These considerations were not part of the MSBA projections, which accounted for the percentage of the current population that will be entering or exiting parenting ages.

With recent school consolidations, like the Devalles project, and plans for the further consolidation of Swift and Ashley Elementaries, New Bedford could be better prepared to weather these enrollment trends. 

Taking students out of these costly, century-old buildings and consolidating into new ones could help lower maintenance costs, which are nearly 10% of the district’s overall budget. (There have also been the closures of Ottiwell, Dunbar, and Kempton Elementary Schools within the last 12 years.) 

Today, however, the budget for all of the district's 25 schools and roughly 1,600 staff is larger than the rest of the city budget — police, parks and recreation, sanitation, and everything else local government does — combined.

The last step in the process will be approval from the City Council. The council’s budget hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, May 23, at 6 p.m. School Committee members and Mayor Mitchell said they expect approval of the school budget, especially with the windfall of state funding.

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