Editorial: Franklin must invest in schools

  • Franklin ELODIE REED

Friday, June 03, 2016

It feels like a never-ending story, but the city of Franklin is trying to breathe new life into its old downtown. A $12 million project is set to turn a beat-up mill behind city hall into quality affordable housing; a federal grant now pays for a downtown business coordinator; and there’s a plan to use tax credits to generate $800,000 to spruce up facades on Central Street.

We commend the effort to improve city life with creative financing, and we hope it succeeds. At the same time, until Franklin decides to stand up for the real heart of its community – its struggling schools – no amount of downtown revitalization will matter much. No families are going to move to Franklin – one of the five property-poor towns in the school financing lawsuit – buy houses, spend money and generate desperately needed revenue unless they are confident about the schools.

On Monday, the mayor and city council have a chance to step up. They will begin consideration of the 2016-17 school budget, which is described around town as “grim,” or even a nightmare.

Last month, 22 teachers – that’s 20 percent of the city’s entire teaching staff and three support staff – were given pink slips in anticipation of a $1.3 million shortfall in school revenue for the 2016-17 school year. The word is a crowd of upset parents and school staff is expected to show up at city hall to say what they think. If Franklin is serious about moving forward, not backward, city leaders need to listen and find the money to cover the gap.

The revenue projection for schools is $14.45 million; the school board’s proposed budget is $15.76 million, which one member described as “bare bones to begin with.” In addition to slashing staff, the shortfall would mean Spanish and French classes would be eliminated, along with computer training. Class sizes would increase.

A recent series of articles by Monitor reporter Elodie Reed gave a much-needed forum for voices seldom heard in Franklin. These residents expressed their affection for the city, but bleak facts backed up their concerns.

According to the Department of Education, Franklin spent $10,269 per pupil in 2014-15 – the lowest level in the state and $4,000 below the state average cost per pupil. School enrollment is down, from 1,465 students in 2005-06 to 1,139 this year.

Perhaps the most stunning number in the Monitor series revealed the extent of the growing poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of people living below the poverty level in Franklin increased from 16 to 24 percent between 2010 and 2014. The number of welfare recipients increased from 27 percent to 35 percent in that same time.

Longtime students of Franklin’s economy say the city’s tax cap, in place since 1989, kills the way forward – blocking infrastructure improvements and reasonable school budget increases.

As far back as 2009, an expert report commissioned by an anti-tax cap group said tax caps result in “a race to the bottom.” Tax cap supporters called the report “questionable,” despite a litany of hard facts about the harsh impact on Franklin. It would take a two-thirds vote of the Franklin city council to adjust the tax cap to cover the school budget shortfall. School supporters plan to push the idea next week. We urge them to do so.

Another route would be for the city council to increase the portion of its tax revenue that goes to the schools. Right now, 65 percent goes to the municipality and 35 percent to the schools. School supporters want to talk about a 50/50 revenue split.

On the city website, longtime Mayor Ken Merrifield says Franklin welcomes “any who are willing to dream and dare with us.” But until the city itself takes a real stand for its schools, the campaign to move Franklin forward will be left to just that – dreamers.