Haverhill school spending still in the basement despite some good efforts to move up

Realtors, city businesses, and others concerned with Haverhill’s reputation will need to wait at least another year to see if Haverhill will move up from the bottom of rankings in per-student school spending.

Recently (December 5, 2019) the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) posted its annual measures of net school spending for FY 2018. In these latest DESE statistics Haverhill appears to be stuck in the bottom 10 percent of Massachusetts districts in per-student spending, moving up only one position from #303 to #302 among 322 school districts and remaining dead last in per-student spending among the 26 Gateway Cities.

Haverhill increased its overall school budget for 2017-18 by 7% over the prior year and enrollment increased less than 1 percent. However, Haverhill per-student spending was up only 4 percent and still below 82 percent of the state average. (See chart below.) So what happened – or didn’t happen?

A closer look at the DESE data shows that spending under the School Committee’s budget was in fact up 7 percent. Spending on administration, instruction, and maintenance all up more than 7 percent; and spending in the category of “athletics, student activities, and security” was up more than 15 percent. However, “net school spending” as defined by DESE includes expenditures from the City budget, in addition to the School Committee’s budget. The City portion covers such things as employee and retiree benefits. For FY 2018, school spending on the city side went down 4.4% in FY 2018.

The reduction in the city portion of Haverhill school spending is attributable to employee and retiree insurance in the DESE Net School Spending Compliance reports for FYs 2017 and 2018. The total of these two lines was $1.26 million less in FY 2018 than 2017. This reduction reflects the city’s switching to the Group Insurance Commission (GIC) to obtain lower cost health insurance coverage from the state’s “largest single purchaser of health insurance”. Haverhill was the fourth Gateway city to join GIC’s health insurance program.

So, while the 7 percent increase in the FY 2018 School Budget did result in 7 percent more spending on instruction, overall spending per student (including the city portion) went up less than the state average, and not enough more than other Gateway Cities to move Haverhill up in the per-student spending rankings.

School budget increases for FY 2019 and FY 2020 were each less than 7 percent but more than inflation and enrollment growth. Perhaps that will be enough to affect Haverhill’s rank in DESE statistics for those years, but with tax revenues up, wage growth exceeding overall inflation, and the prospect of additional state funds, other cities will be increasing their school spending too.

As we enter 2020, Haverhill faces choices about the uses of additional Chapter 70 funding from the Student Opportunity Act (SOA). That Act will provide both additional funds and new accountability requirements for Haverhill and other Gateway Cities. This may help reverse the recent downward slide in Gateway City school spending relative to the state average (as can be seen in the chart).

Getting a better deal on health insurance helps Haverhill keep school costs a bit lower. However, if Haverhill is ever to get out of the basement in per-student spending rankings, leaders will need to keep pressing for more adequate funding and to make smart choices about the use of SOA funding.

Note on DESE data: Per-student spending is one the most prominent measures, reported by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). This past month (December) DESE released its data on per-pupil spending for fiscal 2018 (the 2017-18 school year). DESE data, particularly for spending, lags behind due to reporting. It is like looking in a rear view mirror – where we have been not where we are going. But the DESE data provide the best way to compare Haverhill school metrics those of other Massachusetts cities.