Franklin passes $18.5M school budget; parents talk of fleeing district

  • Guidance counselor Helen Wells along with Mady Savary (center) and Avery Thurber (right) join in the protest outside of the city council chambers on Monday evening, June 11, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 7/18/2018 11:11:09 PM

Tina Thurber walked into Franklin City Hall on Wednesday night knowing that whatever happened there wasn’t going to be enough.

Thurber had already made the decision to leave her home of 37 years – the city she went to school in, where her family members worked in the mills and owned a business – because she wanted a better education for her children.

“I’m not willing to take the chance of them not being successful,” Thurber said. “This is the end of the rope for us. There’s no more that I can do.”

The Franklin City Council voted, 6-3, to pass a $18,571,401 school budget Wednesday night, after three hours of public comment from residents like Thurber.

It was just weeks after the city voted to break its tax cap and give the district an extra $708,623, and then less than a week later voted to rescind its decision, finding $422,722 for the schools from fund balance and capital reserve money instead.

The city struggled to put together a budget again this year after years of mounting tension with the district. The Franklin School District has seen more then more than 20 staff cuts over three years. This year, the school budget shortfall grew to around $1 million for the third year in a row.

As Franklin’s enrollment has dropped, adequacy grants – a base of $3,600 received from the state for each student – have dropped as well.

Many parents Wednesday night spoke about the difficult decision of whether to move out of the city or pull their children out of the ailing school district and into private school. Others said they didn’t have the money to make either of those changes.

Dana Andrews, a former school resource officer and teacher in Franklin, said the decision to send his two high school-age children to private school was difficult but necessary.

“I can’t wait any longer to send my kids to a school where they’ll be successful,” Andrews said. “I can’t wait for AP classes. I can’t watch teachers walk out of a revolving door where they’re not sure whether they’re going to have a job the next year.”

“Many of the people in this room are following suit with what I’ve done,” Andrews added. “It’s unfortunate, and it hurts me as a person who lives in this community to have that happen.”

Kristi Trudel said she moved to Franklin just over 10 years ago with her husband because they found a house they loved there. But now that Trudel has an 8-year-old daughter, she said she feels anxious about their future.

“I want to think in the future it won’t feel like we’re stuck here, but that’s kind of what it feels like right now,” Trudel said.

Mayor Tony Giunta, who has spoken adamantly about the importance of the tax cap, said it’s essential to attract businesses to want to move to the city, as well as support residents living on a fixed income.

One 66-year-old woman named Nan said she works 55 hours a week and still struggles to pay her bills.

“If you guys take away the tax cap, I’m going to lose my home,” she said.

Both the Franklin City Council and school board have expressed interest in being part of another lawsuit that would challenge the state education funding formula.

Members of the city council and City Manager Judie Milner attended a workshop in June in fellow property-poor town Pittsfield led by Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, who was the lead attorney in a series of landmark state Supreme Court cases out of Claremont that established the state’s responsibility to fund an “adequate” education.

In addition to losing adequacy grant money, the city took a hit when the Legislature in 2015 decided to discontinue stabilization grants, a $150 million program that once helped to buoy property-poor cities like Franklin, via annual reductions of 4 percent until the grant funds are removed altogether. In Franklin, stabilization once accounted for about half of the $8 million it received in state aid, but its annual allotment is being reduced by about $160,000 a year.

Teacher Jennifer Weaver warned about looking down the road at long-term solutions, like a lawsuit, instead of focusing on the present. She said it was time for the tax cap to be lifted.

“We want to be a city people want to move to, not away from,” Weaver said.

 (Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)

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