For the past seven months, over a series of four financial summits, Town leaders including the Select Board and School Committee have amended and refined a balanced FY24 budget proposal that they say meets both municipal and school department needs.
On Monday, Town Meeting voted to approve that recommended FY2024 budget of approximately $277 million. But in an unusual twist to what is often a relatively quick and routine vote finalizing the next fiscal year’s budget, Town Meeting Members removed the school budget from the entire Town budget and debated it separately. Members voted to pass the school budget of about $135 million well after 10 p.m. on Monday after passionate debate and concerned questions from Town Meeting Members probing the conflicts stalling contract negotiations with Lexington Public Schools educators.
Hundreds of those educators, family members and several LPS students attended Monday’s Town Meeting session and protested outside Cary Hall for the second time in two weeks that evening. At the protests, educators reiterated calls for a contract as the Lexington Education Association continues negotiations with the School Committee that have dragged on for a year, though their previous contract expired last September. Educators are asking for changes to their contract that include increasing compensation and decreasing workloads. They’ve specifically criticized the FY24 budget for allocating too much Town funding toward savings intended to offset the burden on taxpayers of a new or renovated high school. Those funds, they argue, are needed to support teachers and students now.
Kate Desjardins, a teacher at Diamond Middle School, had never protested in her 10 years working in Lexington, but turned out at Cary Hall on Monday because “we have to value our public schools.” While she loves Lexington, she told LexObserver that teachers are under too much pressure, have unsustainable workloads and are not compensated enough for their work. Desjardins thought Lexington would lose new hires as a consequence of its working conditions.
“I personally feel like…I’m ok right now in my job,” she said. “But what I can’t stand is watching IAs [instructional assistants]…get hired and then quit…because they’re not getting paid enough to stay.”
“I’m watching our systems fail the people around me,” she said.
Janet West, who teaches math at Lexington High School and is a Lexington parent whose own children graduated from LHS, also turned out at Monday’s protest and spoke at Town Meeting. “I’ve got involved because I think the district’s aims, and our aims as teachers, are the same,” she told LexObserver. “But what’s happening in schools is not reflecting what all our common aims are because our budgets are being squeezed.”
As a high school educator, West acknowledged that the new high school is a critically important project for teachers and students, calling the conditions of the current hallways “dangerous.” But paying for that project should not come at the expense of educators, she said. “My kids did well because of their teachers…We can’t lose those teachers.”
Anjali Agarwal, an LHS senior, has repeatedly spoken in support of educators at School Committee meetings and attended protests, and notices the negative effects of crushing workloads on her own teachers. Especially since the pandemic, “it’s become too much of the norm that teachers do a lot of work outside of their contract hours,” Agarwal told LexObserver.
“Lexington, I think, wouldn’t be such a popular or wealthy town without the success of its schools…the heart of that is our educators,” she said. But many of the teachers she knows commute from as far as New Hampshire because “they don’t have living wages to live in Lexington.”
Paul Gormisky attended the protest Monday along with his wife and two children. Gormisky’s wife, Jill, teaches math at Lexington High School, and is among the educators who teach five classes and a total of 120 students. Gormisky turned out to support educators’ calls for a new contract, and said reducing the class cap for teachers like his wife from five to four would greatly benefit students and staff.
“My wife works so many hours, and the teachers are so dedicated to the students,” Gormisky told LexObserver. “Reducing the total number of students that they have to give them a little bit of extra free time is really important…it’s a big burden on families to have teachers that are overworked.”
In his budget report, Town Manager Jim Malloy said the Town has allocated about $1.7 million into the capital stabilization fund for FY24. Since last year, Malloy has implemented a fiscal strategy of putting property taxes generated by new development into this fund with the goal of eventually using it to offset the tax burden a new or renovated high school will put on taxpayers over the next few decades by more than 50%. The fund currently holds more than $20 million. The new high school’s cost is estimated at $500 million.
Town Meeting Member Sarah Higginbotham (P5) asked whether the Town could take some of the funds intended to offset the burden on taxpayers and give them to teachers. “If we are already able to bring that burden down so much on us, when here in Lexington we value our schools to such a degree that we want to continue to see their excellence, I would imagine that we could find ways that we would be supporting our teachers for what they are asking for.”
Nick Hart, an elementary school teacher who lives in Lexington and grew up in town, told Town Meeting that “in my 17 years of teaching here in Lexington, I have never seen morale among LPS educators this low.” He added “the main reason for this low morale, simply put, is money.” Not only do teachers want to be paid a fair salary, he said, but “the main morale problem we’re facing has to do with workload. Many, many teachers in Lexington are unfairly overworked, and to put it simply, more money in the LPS budget would pay for more teachers, which would bring workloads down to manageable levels.”
On Monday, Town Meeting Member Taylor Singh (P6) moved to remove the school budget from the Town’s overall budget for separate debate. While the Town’s overall budget passed almost unanimously (166 votes yes, one no and four abstentions), Town Meeting Members debated the school budget late into the evening.
Singh later moved to postpone debate on the school budget until all other financial articles were completed by Town Meeting, which would have delayed the vote to the end of Town Meeting in late April.
With its current budget proposal, “Lexington’s municipal government is letting our town employees know that we value our construction projects more than the humans that keep us safe and educate our children,” Singh said in her remarks moving to postpone debate.
School Committee Chair and Town Meeting Member Sara Cuthbertson (P7) delivered the School Committee’s statement unanimously opposing the motion to postpone debate. “As a fellow educator, a parent of two students in Lexington Public Schools and the chair of the School Committee, I want to acknowledge how challenging it is to be an educator right now and it has been over the past few years,” she said. Cuthbertson added that while the school budget initially allocated by the municipal finance department was not sufficient to meet the school’s needs, the school budget before Town Meeting developed through financial summits had increased above the School Committee’s initial request, in part thanks to an unexpected influx of state aid. (Superintendent Julie Hackett said she has not indicated exactly how the additional $1.7 million in aid will be spent within the school budget because of ongoing contract negotiations.)
“It is our responsibility to not only look at short-term, but long-term needs as well,” Cuthbertson added. “A one-time boost to the budget, as has been suggested…is not going to be sustainable going forward when those one-time funds dry up.”
Select Board Chair Jill Hai also voiced the Select Board’s unanimous opposition to the motion. “The Select Board, as all of Lexington does, obviously highly values our educators and our education system. The current allocation model allows for over 70 cents on every dollar of our revenue to be allocated toward our school operations.”
A few Town Meeting Members expressed concern that approving the budget now would amount to “putting the cart before the horse” of ongoing contract negotiations, in the words of Town Meeting Member Robert Balaban (P5). Both Hackett and Malloy noted that the Town routinely approves budgets while contract negotiations are ongoing.
Hackett added that the school department had allocated “about double” the amount of funding it normally reserved for contract negotiations for this round of negotiations. In response to a question, she added that postponing the budget would put the Town in a difficult negotiating position.
Malloy noted that if Town Meeting did not approve the budget by July 1, the Town would have to cease operations (though passing the budget later in Town Meeting would not have consequences).
In response to a question, Malloy said the Town would have to consider charging for trash pickup or making changes to other Town services in order to increase the school budget above its recommended level for FY24.
Some other Town Meeting Members asked what the compensation philosophy is for teachers in Lexington.
“As a superintendent of schools, I think we should have competitive salaries…and I think we should be among the top in terms of compensation,” Hackett said. “I also believe that there is a process that we have to honor that we’ve gone through,” which led to the increase in the proposed school budget for this year over negotiations with the municipal department.
“I do believe, that said, that we need to have a larger community conversation. What the teachers are saying is important; what they’re talking about when we’re talking about education in a pandemic can’t really be understood or felt unless you are in schools,” Hackett added. “It is completely different than what it used to be…when you think about the pandemic, and you think about funding a budget with the same dollars that we did in the past, it to a certain extent defies logic.”
The Town should continue conversations about this for future budgets, and specifically to prepare for the budget process for FY25, Hackett said.
Town Meeting Member Jodia Finnagan (P6) was among Town Meeting Members who voted against the budget. “I think we have forgotten what it was like in the pandemic,” she said. “Because people with two or three kids were losing their mind[s]. And you’re talking about people that deal with 30 kids a day, all the time.” Now, with students struggling with more mental health problems in the wake of the pandemic, it is imperative for the Town to pay teachers more, she said.
About a third of Town Meeting Members present voted to postpone the budget vote (59 supported postponing, 100 opposed and 11 abstained). The school budget ultimately passed with 124 in favor, 23 opposed and 21 abstentions. Town Meeting Member Tom Díaz (P8) served notice of reconsideration. This does not guarantee that Town Meeting will reconsider the budget, but is the first necessary step to create that option.
Lexington Educators appreciate the tremendous support from the community members and we would especially like to thank the town meeting members who spoke and voted in favor a budget process that is responsive to the human needs of Lexington residents and the staff who provide the services.
Leave a comment