City Budget Battle: Alleged Gang Members Were High School Dropouts

Recent gang violence stems from a shooting at Swasey Field two years ago. (WHAV News file photograph.)

A review of alleged gang members with weapons violations finds at least three of those arrested over the last two years were also Haverhill High School dropouts.

The findings may shape Haverhill’s budget tonight as city councilors plan to “horse-trade” with the administration during a final budget session tonight in City Hall. Two sides have emerged in this year’s spending debate—those emphasizing public safety in light of recent gang violence and those pushing for increased school funding. However, others say the two issues are one and the same.

Resolving the city’s relatively high dropout rates may well lead to reduced gang violence, says school pediatrician, Dr. John L. Maddox. He first made the case last month in an address before the City Council.

“Kids that drop out of schools can end up in gangs, threatening the public’s safety and their own futures,” he said.

Maddox argued before city councilors, “one of the best predictors of whether a student drops out is whether he or she is on track with a third-grade reading level.” He told WHAV this week another indicator is failing math scores. Using a state-supplied tool to predict dropout rates, Maddox pointed to an example of 27 actual seventh-grade students who face a high risk of failing math. “As they fall behind, they don’t see a future in school,” he said.

Maddox supports the majority of School Committee members that are requesting another $425,000 in spending. The extra money would provide, among other things, for two additional teachers. More teachers at Consentino School, he said, would reduce sixth grade class sizes from a predicted 33 or 34 students to 25 or 26 and possibly improve results. Current plans to move third graders out of Consentino School removes a physical limit on the number of available classrooms. In addition, Maddox notes, only about half of Mayor James J. Fiorentini’s originally proposed 6.3 percent increase for education comes from city money. The rest comes from an increase in state aid for education.

A presentation this week by the city’s financial consultant Cinder McNerney also drew a distinction between the ways Massachusetts and bond rating agencies count surpluses. The state marks the city’s surplus at approximately $10 million, while actual balances total nearly $24 million. Maddox interprets the higher number as providing the city with enough cushion to both increase the school budget and provide for public safety. Together, he believes, the city will still remain under the state’s tax-limiting law. Neither counts include approximately $5.4 million the city has set aside in its rainy-day fund.

Fiorentini has held firm in not spending more of the city’s surplus. At a recent budget meeting, he said, “Of course we want all of those things—absolutely—but we cannot jeopardize our future.”