The School Committee for the Minuteman Regional Vocational School has scheduled a special election on Tuesday, September 20 (polls open between noon and 8PM) to determine whether the regional school district shall approve expenditure of $144.9 million for a proposed new school building. This will be the first school project that I have ever voted against and it is likely to be the only school project that I will ever vote against.
I am a passionate supporter of education generally and vocational education in particular. In general, I feel that, as expensive as education is, it is one of the best investments we can make. In particular, vocational education, as an alternative path into the work force, is something we should be trying to create more of.
But, I truly feel that the Minuteman school is a broken model. Over the past few decades, Minuteman has drifted further and further away from its core mission — providing vocational education to students from its member communities. It has drifted away both in terms of who it serves and in terms of the curriculum that it provides.
First, it has become more and more dependent on admitting students from non-member communities. According to data from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Minuteman, Minuteman is an outlier among the vocational schools in the state, admitting 40.5% of its students from non-member communities in the last school year. Half of the 29 regional vocational schools admitted no students from non-member communities and the statewide average was 6.1%.
Non-member students pay a much lower rate than member community students, $16,464 in FY17 (which may work out to roughly $20,000 after transportation and special education charges), instead of the $25-30,000 per year paid by member communities. The theory is that non-member communities should pay only the actual marginal costs involved in accommodating them. They aren’t expected to cover their share of the fixed costs of the school.
The non-member rate is set by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. DESE is limited in its ability to set higher rates by the concern that higher rates would lead to more school systems attempting to create their own, less-expensive local vocational programs. The average per pupil expenditure in the Belmont schools is roughly $13,000 per pupil.
While the marginal cost pricing may make sense in systems where only a small fraction of the students are paying the lower rate, in the case of Minuteman, it is very hard to defend. The member communities are deeply subsidizing the students from non-member communities and pay very high tuition as a result.
The debt service costs for the proposed new school would raise per student assessments by $8,463 per student based on full projected enrollment. DESE has the power to add a capital assessment to the fees paid by non-member communities, but that assessment is not likely to exceed the average cost. No one should expect a capital assessment to reduce the existing disparity between member and non-member communities. Such an assessment might, in fact, be based on a marginal capital cost concept that would increase the gap between what member and non-member communities pay.
Update re capital assessment
On September 15, Commissioner Chester transmitted a letter explaining DESE’s approach to the capital assessment on non-member districts to help cover the cost of the proposed new building.
Non-member districts who don’t have vocational programs of their own will pay the same capital costs per student as member districts. Non-member districts who have qualifying vocational programs of their own will pay 75% of that amount.
Currently, 74 students come from non-member districts that would pay the full amount and 178 from districts that would pay the lower amount. So, on average, based on current enrollment, non-member districts would pay an average of 82% of what member districts pay per student for capital costs. This difference will be on top of the existing gap in operating cost assessments and will work to somewhat expand the current inequity.
The announcement does not affect the basic per student operating charge per student for students from non-member districts and there is no discussion of raising that charge. So, the roughly $10,000 gap between what member districts and non-member districts pay in total will continue and slightly expand, even with the capital assessment.
Those who take the time to read the letter may note that the letter uses a lower number for debt service than Minuteman is using. That appears to be an error, but the letter is clear as to how the model works.
The other respect in which Minuteman has departed from its mission is that it is no longer primarily focused on students who are directly entering vocations that do not require a college education. Almost half (49.3%) of Minuteman students go on to college, many to private 4-year colleges. Minuteman is affirmatively aspiring to expand its offerings in fields that most commonly require 4 year college degrees — such as computer programming and biotechnology. Minuteman is in no way obliged by state law to focus on students who need an alternative to college and is entirely free to set its own admission criteria.
Fundamentally, due to a lack of enrollment from its member communities in basic vocational programs, Minuteman has sought to fill its seats by broadening its catchment area and broadening its offerings. But, in doing so, it is duplicating offerings in local schools, and straining local school budgets by diverting scarce taxpayer resources.
The question will not be on the ballot in Boston, which has its own vocational schools, or in Watertown — Watertown is not a member community, but does send a number of students to Minuteman. Belmont should say No to the referendum and, by so doing, be allowed to withdraw from the district and send its students to Minuteman on the same lower-cost basis that Watertown does.
While I have a clear view on the issue, I do not think it is a simple issue and I very much would welcome discussion here it.