Parents questioned Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and a panel of Newton Public School (NPS) officials about the impact of a proposed $15 million tax increase for local public schools at a virtual town hall Thursday night.
Funds from the proposed increase will contribute to renovations and improvements at Countryside Elementary School, Franklin Elementary School, and Horace Mann Elementary School. The renovations would contribute to academic excellence and educational equity in the district, according to the city’s website.
Newton residents raised questions regarding the purpose and effects of the tax increase at the town hall.
Sumukh Tendulkar, who said he is an NPS parent by choice, asked for clarification regarding what the panel means when it uses “academic excellence” as a reason residents should approve the proposal.
“I see programs which are associated with academic excellence either getting cut completely—for example, eighth grade honors math—or getting diluted significantly—for example, AP programs which became multi-level programs in high schools,” he said.
Interim NPS Superintendent Kathleen Smith said that academic excellence is difficult to define.
“Academic excellence means very different things to all of our students, [part of which] is personalized learning—making sure every student has an opportunity to excel the best that they can,” she said.
Smith also said there are still opportunities for advanced students.
“There are many offerings in our high schools for AP courses,” she said. “We also have many opportunities for students in the arts or CTE [career and technical education] and vocational programs. Many other districts do not have that opportunity.”
Countryside Elementary has modular classrooms and annexes in poor condition, according to Josh Morse, Newton’s public buildings commissioner. Morse said that the school’s student population has doubled in recent years, but only one additional bathroom was built to accommodate students and faculty. Chronic flooding due to the school being built on top of wetlands has also plagued the school, he said.
But Rielle Montague Barnes, a member of the Peirce Elementary School PTO, raised questions about why the city did not include other elementary schools in its proposal. Montague said there are issues at Peirce Elementary School, which also has modular buildings and lacks a proper cafeteria.
“We’ve got some students that will be enjoying great facilities and some who will still be using not-so-great facilities,” Montague Barnes said. “Is it another 10 years before the other schools that haven’t been addressed will finally get addressed?
Fuller responded by saying that the panel is working on a timeline.
“We go through a very careful process for prioritizing, long-term planning, and putting these schools in a calendar,” Fuller said. “There is a ton of work to do, but I do understand the frustration.”
Morse also said that Franklin Elementary’s six floors are inaccessible and, due to limited space, teachers are forced to utilize basement rooms for teaching and learning.
Horace Mann Elementary is “significantly lacking in space,” according to Morse, particularly in the library and special education rooms.
Citizens can use the city’s override calculator to estimate how their property tax would increase if the proposal is approved. Fuller also proposed to the City Council an initiative to double seven of the nine tax assistance programs in Newton to alleviate some of the pressure of these potential tax increases.
Newton voters will have the opportunity to vote for the proposed increase at a special election tentatively set for March 14. The mayor said she hopes residents will approve the increase.
“There isn’t an element of what we’re doing in this city that I don’t feel restless and energetic about doing better,” Fuller said. “But I do hope our community will come together and allow us to move forward to that future.”