The Fight to Save Pentucket Arts

Photo Credit: Zach Whalen

Photo Credit: Zach Whalen

Zachary Whalen, Copy Editor

The day before Pentucket’s annual Arts Fest, everyone could have expected the halls to be lined with artwork of every medium, decorations for the spring musical, and advertisements for Cafe Jazz and the other ensembles’ final performances. However, no one could have expected that interspersed between these displays of talent would be posters pleading for the arts programs to continue at Pentucket.

The irony is palpable. It is impossible to walk into the school and not understand the success of these programs and how important the arts are to the culture of Pentucket. So, why are these programs being threatened, and is there any way to save them?

Photo Credit: Zach Whalen


On May 4th, the school’s budget override was not passed in Groveland or Merrimac, leaving the administration to somehow cut 1.34 million dollars from the 2022-2032 spending plan. When the revised budget was revealed on May 10th, it became clear that every facet of the school was going to be negatively impacted, and that the school year was going to be tremendously difficult for teachers and students alike

Eight teachers are expected to be cut, which will dramatically increase class sizes. The amount of supplies the district will allot to the schools will also shrink- so bigger classes, fewer resources. Sports also will be impacted- the freshmen teams will be disbanded, robbing freshmen of a year’s worth of opportunities to gain experience playing competitively on high school fields. 

Athletic fees will also be doubled. While there will be exceptions for lower income families, it’s undeniable that this will put another barrier between kids and sports. Those are not the only fees that will be increased, either- the price of before and after school care will be raised by about $50 if your child is only in the morning or after school program- and it will be raised by $110 if you utilize both services. This will put a further financial burden on lower income families, who are often the ones who rely on these childcare programs the most.

In terms of academics, the arts programs face the most severe impact by far, with three positions set to be cut. A visual arts and performing arts teacher will be removed, and the art position at the Page school will be reduced from a full time position to a little over half time. This is going to have a massive impact on enrollment in the highschool arts program- with less arts at the Page, we will have fewer students discovering and nurturing their love of art at an early age. Furthermore, consider the fine arts department: they have three teachers across the middle and high school. Losing even one of them will deal a terrible blow to the department, the effects of which will be felt by every art student over the next school year. 

Finally, it was announced that the percussion class would be cut entirely- a decision that justifiably enraged the student body, who quickly got to work to make their voices heard.  Thankfully, two protests, countless posters, and many generous donations to the Music Boosters later, it was announced that the percussion class would be able to continue into the next year.  

As wonderful as it is that percussion was saved, it remains that eight other educators are out of a job. Their positions cannot be saved with fundraising, and even if they could be, communities should not be burdened with paying for teachers salaries. Where is the state funding that Pentucket clearly needs? How did we get to the point where the percussion contract is paid through a GoFundMe, and is there anything that can be done to prevent situations like this from happening again?


It has been well established that the formula Massachusetts uses to fund its public schools is flawed. It labels too many schools as ‘high income,’ which leaves them receiving the minimum yearly increase in state funding: $30 a student. When that aid doesn’t accurately reflect the wealth in the community, it results in situations such as Pentucket is in now, with towns unable to meet the state’s unfounded expectations.

District: Average per capita income:  Percent funded by the state: Percent increase per student: 
Weston $97,126 17% $30
Lexington $87,896 19% $30
Wayland $81,474 17% $30
Pentucket  $51,707 45% $30

This is not indicative of a just system.

Amesbury School Committee member Mel Webster explains it well: “I understand cities with large populations and economically disadvantaged students receiving a significant increase…But I don’t understand when they take Wellesley and Weston and Sharon and all of these wealthy communities and Amesbury gets the same as them, every year. They are not accurately assessing a district’s ability to pay for their school system. That is the biggest issue that bothers me.” It’s a bit like giving an impoverished child and a wealthy child one can of soup each- it’s fair in theory, but in practice one of those children is going to go hungry, while the other adds to their Andy Warhol collection.

57% of schools in Massachusetts receive this minimum amount of additional money. However, 57% of schools in Massachusetts are not made up of wealthy communities. Under this system, there is no space between massive amounts of funding and no funding at all, no room for middle class communities. Triton Regional School Committee Chairwoman Nerissa Wallen states, “[Funding] has always been looked at as these high-needs districts with a lot of poverty in them and that has always been contrasted against these very high-wealth districts and there are no shades of gray in that comparison. Then you have Amesbury, Triton, Georgetown and Ipswich which get lost in all that.”

However, thirty dollars per student isn’t enough for arguably even the wealthiest of schools. According to Geoff Beckwith, Executive Director and CEO of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, “At $30 per student…these school districts will receive below-inflation increases each year, and will be forced to scale back education programming or cut municipal services to make up the difference.” Pentucket’s current situation proves him right: this formula simply isn’t sustainable in the long term.

 It’s important to note that the money to fund Massachusetts schools properly does exist- but the distribution of funds that do not go to the lowest income communities are skewed in favor of upper class districts, bypassing those in the middle. Several nearby schools are a good example of this- their communities have high average incomes, and they rely little on state contributions. Yet, they receive a yearly increase in funding that keeps up with inflation. Meanwhile Pentucket, a district that depends heavily on state support, is neglected. 

DISTRICT Percent increase per student: Average per capita income: Percent funded by the state: Percent special education: Percent impoverished students:
Concord $120 $76,659 17% 18% 8%
Dover- Sherborn $95 $101,303 18% 16% 2%
Burlington  $73 $57,288 17% 14% 4%
Newton $61 $73,389 18% 20% 4%
Newburyport  $53 $59,818 17% 14% 8%
Carlisle $34 $79,739 18% 15% 2%
Pentucket  $30 $51,707 45% 18% 8%


Of course, this phenomenon of wealthy schools receiving more aid than Pentucket does not stop at chapter 70 funding. A report from the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce reveals that, in 2020, 14% of the aid proposed for schools was to be distributed on a ‘needs blind’ basis- or, regardless of if schools needed the money. The report goes on to say that 64% of this aid was distributed to “the wealthiest 20 percent of districts in Massachusetts despite their ability to fully fund their schools on their own.” All in all, about $500 million was distributed to these districts, the money going from need-blind to need-ignorant.  

From there, the report points out issues with the “hold harmless” provision of Chapter 70, which guarantees that schools get the same amount of money, or more, in state funding each year. While seemingly reassuring, this provision means that aid increases regardless of if enrollment in the school decreases, or if the school’s need for funding decreases- for example, if taxpayers in the community grow wealthier. According to the MBAE report, this premise of increasing the funds of well off communities as they grow more affluent has resulted in “the wealthiest districts receiving about five times more aid attributable to [this provision], per student, than the least wealthy schools.” 

So, why is funding so skewed in favor of the rich? According to the report, “political compromises.” 

All of this demonstrates that the state’s poor funding of the middle class is a choice. However, for Pentucket, the situation is worse than it appears. Not only are we underfunded, but the state actually significantly reduced our aid this year. 

$144,000 in state funding has been cut from the transportation budget. If you recall, the state is responsible for 45% of Pentucket’s funding. The schools’ reliance on the state results in it being very sensitive to changes in funding- let alone one of over one hundred thousand dollars. Newburyport, for example, has enough of a taxpayer buffer that they could hypothetically stomach a blow like this; we do not. As a result, Pentucket now has to cut a bus route, and make even more drastic cuts to the dwindling budget- without this cut, the school could have hypothetically kept two additional teachers. 

That being said, this should not come as a surprise if one has been watching how the state routinely cuts corners with transportation funding. Despite a 1949 law stating the state must cover all transportation costs for regional school districts, the last time transportation was fully funded across all districts was over fifteen years ago. 

In 2017 for example, the state only covered 73% of transportation costs, leaving taxpayers to make up the difference- about 14 million dollars. This feels particularly backwards when taking into account that, in April, Massachusetts collected 12% more in taxes than anticipated– the excess amount totaling over three and a half billion dollars. 

However, as interesting as the intricacies of Massachusetts public school funding are, none of this feels particularly groundbreaking. No one could have attended Pentucket, felt the air conditioning and heat barely work, seen the cracked tiles, tried to use the wifi, and emerged believing that it was properly funded. While increases in state funding have helped a bit, all they’ve done is delay the inevitable- we have run out of money. The state will not help, and now students and teachers will suffer. So, what can be done?


Well, let’s first look at preventing the school from being in this position again at a local level. If you’re a senior who wasn’t even aware that an override vote for the school budget was happening, or an upcoming student who scarcely pays attention to the local politics, I hope this demonstrates how important being an active member of your community is. It’s easy to assume that local ballots will have little effect on our lives- but as the events of the last few weeks have shown, that could not be further from the truth. It is crucial we show up for the school at a town level- and while the override failed this time, there’s no reason why we can’t better support the school in years to come. 

However, it is arguably even more important to fight for the school at the state level, as it is the state that has the majority of control over our budget. This year, we have a unique opportunity to do so: Governor Baker will not be running for reelection in November. Therefore, Massachusetts is guaranteed a new leader. If you are eighteen, you have the power to ensure that the new Governor is one who will put education first. 

Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz is an interesting candidate to watch: she was a teacher in Lynn and Boston before becoming a state senator in 2008, and was a lead architect of the Student Opportunities Act, which incorporated changes Chang-Diaz suggested in her 2019 education funding bill, the PROMISE act. The SOA allocates $58,000 additional dollars to Pentucket annually, and while this was not enough to prevent budget cuts, Chang-Diaz acknowledges the current weakness of the bill. She states, “The SOA…provides for $1.5 billion in new state K-12 funding annually to ensure all students have the resources they need for a quality education…but only if it’s fully implemented. The current administration continues to delay implementing these landmark reforms, with budget proposals that put low-income families at the back of the line and consistently ignore the funding increases required by the new law. Full implementation of the SOA will be one of my top priorities as Governor.”

No matter who your support goes to this November, the best thing you can do for this school is ensure it goes towards someone who values education. If you are unable to vote in the fall, just being outspoken about the flaws of the funding system is incredibly helpful. On May 10th, Superintendent Dr. Bartholomew said to the school committee, “if you sit silently, then we’re part of the problem. Be vocal, get out there, explain to the legislators that this is not okay, this formula does not work.” I believe this is a message we should take to heart as well: never underestimate the power of your voice. 

Together, students became a force that ultimately saved the percussion position. There is no reason why our impact, or the good we bring to this school, has to stop there.