By Geoffrey Epstein
FRAMINGHAM – In a recent Boston Globe article, the Framingham Mayoral race was covered, with a focus on the underdog status of the Mayor, and factors relating to that: the town/city transition, the pandemic, ‘old guard’ opposition, Council/Mayor friction, racial concerns, legislator abandonment, and so on.
Missing from that coverage were the central failures of the Spicer administration to properly fund education, attend to key municipal infrastructure problems, or to advance climate change action. Water and sewer rate hikes got a mention, but that is just the tip of the iceberg.
The aim here is to fill in those missing details and provide voters important information for deciding who should next serve as our next Mayor in Framingham.
When the Mayor took office on January 1st , 2018, it was expected that she would face real challenges, as she made a career stretch to top executive of a good sized newly minted city. She came to the job with an educator’s credentials and with some modest administration experience at the level of a departmental head, so it was clear that she would have to climb a steep learning curve, to master the details of a broad range of municipal operations and the finances which fuel their execution. The unfortunate fact is that the Mayor never met that challenge.
Even in her strong suit of education, there was a total failure to grasp the basics of planning and finance which govern the school district, and that lead her to act in a manner adverse, not only to all students, but especially to one of her natural constituencies: low income and limited English proficient students.
This first became apparent in the FY20 budget cycle in the spring of 2019. She opened her attack on the school district by complaining that the school district budget had risen by $50 million in 10 years, and asserted in no uncertain terms that she considered that unsustainable. The budget had indeed risen by $45.7 million, but $32.3 million of that increase was Chapter 70 state aid designed to level the educational playing field for less affluent communities and provide enhanced educational support for low income and limited English proficient students. The other piece, the local contribution, funded by the town/city had grown by $13.4 million, from $72 million in 2009, at a rate of 1.7% annually, less than inflation, and completely sustainable.
So, the Mayor got the basic math wrong on sustainability, and seemed to entirely miss the fact that the state had come through with well deserved support for our most disadvantaged students.
The Mayor compounded this mistake by further complaining that in the prior fiscal year the school district arrived at the end of the year with a several million dollar ‘surplus’. As an educator she should have known that the end of year balance is largely a reserve which is carried forward into the next fiscal year to support spending on out of district tuitions for our most severely challenged special needs children.
Both the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Division of Local Services, which promotes sound municipal financial management practices, recommend that school districts maintain a healthy carry forward reserve to guard against volatility in spending due to unforeseen high needs student move-ins. The Framingham practice going back to ‘town’ years has been to carry forward several million dollars at the end of each financial year. All well managed school districts do this.
So, the Mayor got that wrong as well. She would have gutted the reserve which protects our most vulnerable students.
The final nightmare of that budget year played out in the end game of the budget process, when an additional $700,000 of late breaking Chapter 70 state aid was secured, with the aid of our state delegation. Instead of using that state aid to supplement the school district budget, which it was designed to do, the Mayor attempted to divert it for cityside use. It took City Council action to block this egregious attempt to deprive some our neediest students of the state support they deserved.
No wonder the state delegation is upset with the Mayor. To this day, the Mayor thinks that the schools district is swimming in money and needs to be fiscally pruned. All based on a complete misunderstanding of school district finances. And pruning is what she has done.
She has managed so far to cut the school district local contribution average increase down from $3.6 million annually in the last 4 years as a town, to $1.1 million annually in her 4 years as Mayor. As a consequence, the current school district operating budget is propped up by $4.4 million in one-time reserves, which will cause a giant problem in FY23, next year’s budget. Only remarkable efficiency measures implemented by the school district have kept the funding gap at $4.4 million, rather than $10 million.
The picture is also grim on the capital budget side. That’s what covers school building maintenance and repairs. Coming into office in 2018, a simple Mayoral assessment of school building needs would have shown that roofs were a major problem, with 14 of 15 school roofs reaching their end of life in the next 5 years. In 2018, warranties on many school roofs were extended for 5 years to buy time to plan for their replacements. That presented the incoming new Mayor with plenty of time to work up a solution.
But, nothing was done by the Mayor for all four years. No planning. No budgeting. Nothing.
And the looming cost is around $60 million. Only Fuller will be unaffected by this infrastructure tsunami.
Beyond the twin disasters of operating and capital budget mismanagement, major opportunities to further school district interests were squandered.
A new southside school is a key strategic objective for the School Committee, as it addresses the unbalanced distribution of elementary schools across Framingham, and sites a new school right where most low income and limited English proficient students live. But the Mayor never warmed to the obvious advantages of acquiring the Bethany property, to at least take the first step towards that goal.
She was much more interested in buying the Perini property which made no sense for the schools, or the city, either from a space management point of view or an environmental point of view due to site contamination.
In fact, the environmental area has posed a key challenge to the Mayor, where even though maintaining that she is a STEM supporter, she seems to have missed the science (S) and mathematics (M) which the community has embraced, especially in solar installations.
At the start of 2018, Framingham residents and business had already installed more than a thousand solar systems across the city. Other municipalities, like Wayland, Ashland and Newton, were in full swing putting tons of solar panels on their schools and libraries. She could have gotten Ameresco in, as they did, and put solar roofs and solar parking lots in our 15 schools. Thirty potential solar installations, with the promise of $500,000 in annual utility savings. We could have gone big and coupled these with roof replacements. But no.
Today, 4 years later, we have not a single operational solar panel on any municipal building in Framingham. McAuliffe library has a small 70kW installation coming online by the end of the year, and 2022 will see 2 solar parking lots (Fuller, Brophy) and one solar roof (Fuller) come
online, but it is likely that 90% of our solar opportunities will be lost through Mayor Spicer’s snail pace on solar, as the federal incentives driving these sunset in 2023.
So, what to do to climb out of this morass of fiscal and operational mismanagement?
Education funding, capital infrastructure, climate change action – Charlie gets the whole picture and has the experience and knows how to get the job done.
Vote Charlie Sisitsky on November 2nd. Especially parents and grandparents, who know we must invest in our children’s future.
Geoffrey Epstein serves on the Framingham School Committee, representing District 6, and has been the Chair of the Finance & Operations Subcommittee since 2018, and the Chair of the Climate Change, Environment and Sustainability Subcommittee since 2020.