Gloucester school officials deserve credit for researching and providing answers raised by some residents who expressed doubts about the proposed fiscal 2016 city schools' budget earlier this month.
And school leaders make a number of valid points: The steady increase in Gloucester school spending from approximately $30 million in fiscal 2002 to the proposed $40 million — OK, $39.8 million — in fiscal 2016 despite a steady decline in the number of students served can be attributed to general inflation, increases in teachers' salaries, growing and federally-mandated special education costs, and a desire to at least maintain the level of services to students.
But while residents raised those issues at a budget hearing focused on the latest budget proposal — with its $1.7 million or 4.4 percent increase over spending for the current fiscal year — they actually touched on a larger, long-term need.
While the declining enrollment and the continuing erosion of students and families out of the district under the state's school-choice doctrine may not serve as a tell-tale sign that next year's budget is inherently excessive, they do remind us it's time for the city and its school system to get serious about consolidating its elementary schools, merging the current five schools into at least four or perhaps even three for the future.
To many school officials and many parents, the term "consolidation" has, itself, somehow been consolidated into the nastiest four-letter words — notably when a number of residents and even some city election candidates two years ago raised the idea of consolidating two or three of the elementary schools into the former Fuller School building.
But while the School Committee forsook Fuller to lease the former St. Ann School to temporarily house West Parish's students while their own new school is under construction, even the latest recommendations from Dore & Whittier — the Newburyport-based architectural firm that worked on the West Parish project — now include options for consolidation.
Outlined in January, Dore & Whittier cited a number of structural and service needs for the current schools. And its report noted the feasibility of closing either Plum Cove School, Veterans Memorial, or both as the School Committee looks toward shaping its next round of school facilities projects.
Indeed, the idea of building a new school to house combinations of students from those schools, along with the current East Gloucester and Beeman Memorial, would help the school district address a more subtle problem — the historically high concentrations of at-risk and special needs students in a few of the city's schools.
Consolidation would also address the long-term cost factors cited by residents Joe Orlando, Jr., and his sister Amanda Kesterson, at the April 1 budget hearing.
It would do so by phasing out a need for some of the current elementary administrators, and almost certainly yield a savings on utility costs — all while keeping the number of teachers at or near the current levels to serve the students. Yet it could also free up some teaching positions for specialty posts, since merging some of the current elementary schools could also merge grade levels on an almost citywide basis; consolidating, say, six current first-grade classes at two of the schools into perhaps five for the two schools combined.
Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken has essentially endorsed the new school budget; she voted for it from her School Committee seat on the night it received committee approval. She's also acknowledged it's not yet certain it can be funded. And School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope conceded last week he expects the fiscal 2016 spending plan's bottom line to be trimmed as it weaves through the city's overall budgeting process.
But as school and city officials nail down the spending level for the coming school year, they should also give high priority to ending the steady increases that defy the district's current and projected enrollments over the last decade and more.
It's time to put the next building proposal — and a serious consolidation plan — on the front burner.