Benjamin Forman, MassINC research director, said Gateway Cities, such as Haverhill, are disadvantaged because they must rely on a predominantly residential property tax base, rather than a commercial one. (Photographs by Cindy Driver for WHAV News.)
Participants in a “Haverhill Community Discussion on School Success” last night all appeared to arrive at the same conclusion—Haverhill must spend more money on its schools.
While no specific solutions, such as raising taxes or rearranging the city budget, were proposed, a common theme emerged that the city must pay more. Economist Thomas Granneman, a senior fellow with Mathematica Policy Research, Cambridge, zeroed in on what he thinks is the real problem.
“We need to keep taxes and spending low until the Hale debt is paid off—something we hear often. Or, we need to keep taxes low because some citizens cannot afford to pay them. So, that would be accepting the kind of, what I would call, the culture of scarcity that’s been the predominant mode of thinking in many discussions in Haverhill.”
Instead, Granneman said, residents need to adopt a “culture of civic responsibility.” He explained the failure of the former city-owned Hale Hospital should not be a problem faced only by current students.
“Low taxes will not make the Hale debt go away—sometimes, you seem to hear that. The burden of the Hale debt should not be placed on this generation of Haverhill students.”
Granneman pointed to a variety of statistics showing Haverhill’s student dropout rate is higher than other Gateway Cities—former industrial communities—and other similar-income cities. The city also spends less.
“Over the last 10 years—a period of relatively tight budgets and what not—Haverhill spending has drifted downward to where it’s substantially below, in 2015 (numbers), the other benchmark cities that we’re looking at.”
He suggested inconsistent student performance over time can be blamed on the city’s reliance on short-term grants. He explained gains the city makes while using grant money are lost when the money runs out. However, Granneman said, improvement is possible with consistent spending and pointed to schools in Salem and Lawrence as examples. While the city does spend more every year, he said, the hikes have not kept up with increasing student enrollment and inflation. He estimated Haverhill needs to spend 7.4 percent every year for the next five years to match other Gateway Cities, or 8.5 percent more to match similar income Gateway Cities. Haverhill currently spends 18 percent less per student than the state average.
In a segment moderated by Northern Essex Community College President Lane Glenn about solutions, School Committee President Gail M. Sullivan listed her wish list.
“What I’d like to see different is more cooperation, more collegiality and more systemic planning so that things are systems-based.”
Similarly, Haverhill City Council President John A. Michitson blamed the city charter for tying the hands of city councilors. He explained the legislative body cannot add money to budgets, interfere with individual items within the school budget or manage the city. However, he added, the council could do a better job of “horse-trading” with Mayor James J. Fiorentini. As an example, Michitson noted efforts last year to convince the mayor to spend more on schools.
“We weren’t strong enough to get that additional funding, but we gave it the old college try, and hopefully we’re going to try harder this time around,” Michitson said.
He said the council did lead a successful fight to submit a plan to the state for help fixing Consentino School and continues to push for improvements at Tilton School.
Panelist Dena Papanikolaou, chief legal counsel for the state Board of Higher Education, spoke as a resident. Whether it’s in the school budget or not, she said, taxpayers are already paying for the failures of the education system.
“For each high school dropout, this costs taxpayers about $290,000 over each high school dropout’s lifetime,” she said.
She cited examples such as the costs of public assistance or placing people in prisons.
“When people say we cannot afford to reallocate resources or to raise new revenue to address these issues by investing upfront in our education system, I say, ‘Guess what? We’re already paying for it, but we’re paying for it in a reactive way.’”
Benjamin Forman, MassINC research director, hinted at another problem faced by Gateway Cities such as Haverhill.
“Boston gets two-thirds of its tax base from commercial properties. Our Gateway Cities get two-thirds of their tax base from residential property,” Forman said.
WHAV broadcast the forum live on 97.9 FM from Hunking School. Tim Jordan, of the Haverhill Education Coalition, introduced each of the speakers. A rebroadcast of the forum is scheduled to take place in the near future.