The news that Gloucester school officials, through the use of the city’s free cash windfall carryover from the last fiscal year, are scaling back both student athletic fees and bus transportation fees beginning as early as this spring should certainly be welcome relief for school parents.
But it’s also important for officials and parent alike to recognize that this represents only a temporary reprieve, and therefore just a first step toward providing services more in the fashion that Gloucester should. And while school and city officials both huddle over new budgets for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins July 1, it’s essential that they look to stabilize these fees for the future through making budget choices that indeed put these and other needs of students, parents and taxpayers first, and ahead of some persomnel expenses and staffing levels that may well need to be evaluated for the city’s school system of the future.
The breaks in user fees — pretty much telegraphed by Mayor Carolyn Kirk earlier this year but just approved last week by the School Committee — will largely come through a $75,000 allocation from the city’s whopping $4.8 million free cash account left over from fiscal 2012 and certified by the state’s Department of Revenue last fall.
The cost cuts savings for families are significant, with fees for most activities being trimmed from $380 per student per sport down to $230, for a cut of 40 percent.
Parents of high school track and field and cross country participants will see their costs fall from $260 to $156 — which seems only fair since Gloucester’s track teams, especially, still have to wait one more season to even use their home track. And the fees for O’Maley Middle School sports other than hockey will fall from $100 to $60, with middle school hockey still holding at the new high school fee of $230.
Bus fees, meanwhile, are being lowered to $90 from the previous $150, with a $300 cap per family. And it’s good to hear the mayor note that the new levels should hold up for the 2014 fiscal year — essentially the next school year that starts in September.
But what about after that?
The fact is, using free cash for these student and parent friendly fee cuts is a good idea, but it is not in any way the kind of long-term solution the city needs to ensure these fees don’t once again approach being prohibitive for too many students and families.
That’s because the city cannot — and should not — ever count on receiving a $4.8 million free-cash carryover anytime soon. While the mayor understandably likes to tout the free cash and stabilization level as helping to solidify the city’s bond rating —which it has done — the truth is, a $4.8 million free cash kitty also serves as a sign of “under budgeting,” with money that should be allocated to services being tucked away instead for free cash auditors and later distribution.
And one looking to argue that point need not look beyond what might be considered the ultimate Gloucester paradox: that a city that piled up $4.8 million in free cash in one budgeting year still can’t find a meaningful way to keep open its outlying fire stations that should be up and serving property owners and taxpayers in Bay View, Annisquam, Lanesville and and Magnolia a lot more often than they do.
In developing budgeting for the next fiscal year, city and school officials alike should not only craft revenue and spending plan that can maintain these new fee levels for the next school year, but look to hold down expenses elsewhere and make structural changes in a fashion that will allow for these fees to be held for years to come, if not eventually cast aside altogether.
That indeed is the goal toward which this important first step should lead.