South Kingstown vs. a Top 100 District in Massachusetts

The forest and trees metaphor is pretty apt when our local boards analyze programs, outcomes and the budgets funding them.  

When I served on the South Kingstown School Committee, I would pore over the budget comparing it to prior years, identifying trends, poking at every bit of minutia I was provided.  Once out of office, though, I was able to do a deeper dive into other districts around southern New England.  I was especially able to focus on Massachusetts districts that were highly regarded. Then I could see the forest.

If using the comprehensive CAS testing as metric, South Kingstown would barely fall in the middle of ALL Massachusetts districts, and near the bottom of suburban districts.  If spending were linked to outcomes, you might suggest that they must be spending more in Massachusetts.  You would, of course, be VERY wrong.

A few years ago, this comparison to Longmeadow was done.  With many factors being comparable, they were spending some $17 million LESS than South Kingstown.  While not entirely similar, the districts have enough overlap to ask “Why the disparity?”.  The students there are getting better outcomes, and they were doing it for less.

Revisiting Longmeadow today, the disparity is more severe.  Our current $69 million budget (page 48 here), spread over the expected ~2500 students (page 33) is nearly $28,000 each.  Longmeadow is closer to $16,000.  They have a few more students (around 2,800), and have a total budget around $45 million.  We are spending over $20 million more than a similar district, and not seeing the same quality of outcomes that Longmeadow students receive.

A few differences to note are that Massachusetts parents often need to pay for their own bussing and activity fees.  But a student needing bussing and participating in 2 sports costs the parent less than $750.  That leaves at least $11,000 per student in disparity.

So we return to the forest and trees metaphor.  We do not need details to know that there is ALOT wrong with spending $69 million.  And we really didn’t get a chance to see those details anyway.  For the first time in decades, a school spending plan was approved without having the prior year financial audit complete, any current year updates, or a complete detailed budget until the eleventh hour.  Decision makers and the public were essentially blind to 3 years of fiscal detail.  Despite this opacity, districts like Longmeadow tell us we have a severe spending problem.  A few years ago, $20,000 per pupil seemed high.  This budget’s $28,000 defies logic.

The spending proposal increases by 4.8%, despite another expected enrollment decline.  No cuts are necessary, just track spending to student and staff attrition.  The inevitable question “What do you suggest we cut?” tells more about the asker’s values than anything else. It betrays an unwillingness to consider ANY due diligence in their fiscal oversight, and suggests other priorities for how money flows through the town.  With 30 to 40 staff members retiring or leaving each year, it would not even require eliminating a single person to keep spending flat.  

If our elected officials would acknowledge the forest they are in, maybe we can start moving in the right direction. 

3 thoughts on “South Kingstown vs. a Top 100 District in Massachusetts

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  1. With respect, Roland, you have your thumb unnecessarily on the scale here. I think the data you referenced for Longmeadow was from 2020, likely before any COVID related federal funding was included. In contrast, you included ESSER funds in SK’s 69M budget, the exclusion of which would have brought the total expenditures closer to 62M I believe, representing an increase of less than 1% from the previous year. In addition, comparing Longmeadow’s FY20 budget to SK’s proposed FY23 budget is more than a little un-fair. If we assumed a modest 2% per year increase in Longmeadow’s budget, that would bring 45M to 48M. So the apples to apples comparison is really 62M vs 48M, which while still a significant difference, is nowhere near the 25M difference you show. In fact the current $14M difference is $3000 less than what you claimed in 2017.

    It seems the current SK committee should be applauded for their fiscal restraint in such difficult times, rather than attacked using apples to oranges comparisons.


    1. Is it possible, Jason, that you are only seeing the trees, too? Your laser focus on dollars misses the broader discussion about value. The value Longmeadow students, teachers, and taxpayers get is very different than in SK. They even leveraged that value into a new high school 10 years ago. They’ve maintained that balance even up to this budget year, where their initial proposal is significantly less than your estimate. But even using your numbers and reducing the ppe delta by $3k, there is still a massive disparity. While some of the background admin work may be laudable on this budget, it did not result in fiscal restraint. Per pupil spending has steadily gone from about 21k in 2018 to 28k in this plan. That 33% over 5 years includeds 4 years of around 2% inflation. And with that hike, learning losses were greater than many comparable districts, including Longmeadow. In other words, we are widening the value gap. We could bump spending up on IEP programs, pay private school tuition for everyone else, and still come up around 20mm shy of the current spending plan. With external value benchmarks like that, I simply disagree with the direction we are heading.


  2. I see your perspective, it so think your argument would be stronger if it used relevant comparisons. Pitting a 3 year old pre-COVID budget against SK’s current version suggests you are searching more for a political argument than an earnest conversation leading to solutions.

    We are in agreement (as we’ve discussed many times) that SK’s budget and priorities are out of whack. I think we also agree that the past 4 years have been a disaster that halted progress you and the previous committee were making pre 2018.

    I don’t think anyone thinks one budget is a solution to those systemic problems, but I do think the current budget is at least a small step in the right direction. Let’s hope the next few years feature an honest rebuilding of a once proud district.

    I appreciate your persistence in keeping the SK council and school committee honest, which is why I noted the apples to oranges nature of your original critique.


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