HopNews has written extensively on the turnover problem plaguing Town Hall. With HR Director Maria Casey and Town Manager Norman Khumalo heading for the exits, following many others who also left in 2023, perhaps now is the time to try a novel approach to retention.
It’s a simple idea, and one that is rumored to have been discussed at Town Hall in the past.
The Town of Hopkinton should allow full-time employees to enroll their children in Hopkinton’s public schools, for as long as they are employed by the town.
While the idea has been floated, the reported reason it hasn’t gone anywhere is because of the anticipated load on the school system. “We can’t take any more kids,” seems to be the common refrain.
But has anyone done the actual math?
By my calculation, in the most likely case, this would add just 36 additional students to the school system, and that’s assuming every new hire took advantage of the benefit. This would be roughly equivalent to a new housing development of 18 homes, which is smaller than Edgewood, the development Toll Brothers is putting in at the end of Chamberlain Street, likely adding at least 58 students to the system.
36 students is 0.8% of our current enrollment. In other words, it’s a small amount.
Readers should see below for how we arrived at our calculations, but the math is simple: For each participating employee, add $15,870 to their base salary for each child, or $31,740 in the worst case (2 children). Total cost to the town for all these kids? $571,320, assuming one child per employee, or $1,142,640 for two children.
For perspective, the town paid more than $11.3 million in medical and dental insurance for its employees in 2022, a benefit that receives full participation, unlike the program I’m proposing.
To make the deal even sweeter for Hopkinton taxpayers, the inter-district school choice program under G.L. c. 76, § 12B, allows families to enroll their children in schools in communities other than the city or town in which they reside. Tuition is paid by the sending district to the receiving district. Though Hopkinton does not currently accept out of district students, the School Committee could vote to change this to allow for this program, in which case the student’s tuition would be fully paid. Cost to Hopkinton under that model? $0.
But regardless if Hopkinton pays or not, this is still a very good deal for the following reasons.
First, our ability to attract candidates will be vastly improved. If we want top talent we need to showcase our crown jewel, which is our #1 ranked school system. This would also allow us to poach candidates from other municipalities, employees with valuable experience that they will bring to improving town operations. In hiring there is a simple rule: A-players hang out with A-players. If we want A-players, we need to attract them with our A-player school system.
We are also likely to receive many more applicants for town positions, which will allow us to be more selective in the hiring process. Undoubtedly there are people working in town that were not the first choice, or even second choice, of the hiring manager. With an attractive benefit such as this, we mitigate the problem.
The town will also be able to pay less for higher quality candidates. This is simple supply and demand economics; when you have more applicants you can find higher quality talent for a lower cost. Additionally, by putting a number to this benefit ($15,870) it allows for an additional point of leverage in the hiring process. Some candidates will even be willing to take a reduced salary in exchange for this benefit. Giving their child the opportunity to attend Hopkinton Public Schools is a decision many parents would make in heartbeat.
It is true that some salaries are contractually negotiated, such as some police officers and teachers. I would posit that when it comes time to renegotiate those contracts, a benefit as attractive as this would provide the town with a strong point of leverage to keep their labor costs lower.
Most importantly, our ability to retain our workforce will be greatly approved. Children are an anchor, and once they’re in school, a parent is in the community. Because the benefit is conditioned on their continued employment, not only will town employees work hard to retain their positions, they will be far less likely to leave if they are unsatisfied or wooed by another town that pays more.
Which brings me to the final benefit: Continuity. The cost to hire, train, and optimize an employee for their position is extraordinary, and every time one leaves, not only do we lose the time and money we invested, we lose the knowledge they gained in the process. Turnover is extraordinarily wasteful. SHRM, which is the largest HR association in the world, estimates that employee turnover can cost up to 5 times the employees salary, depending on the type of role and location. For some positions, the cost of turnover far exceeds the $15,078 we would pay to keep that employee.
Town Clerk Connor Degan confirmed that implementing benefit programs is typically at the discretion of the Town Manager and Human Resources, who can do so as long as it’s budgeted. While it does not require a vote at Annual Town Meeting, it would likely be implemented in collaboration with the Town Manager, Select Board and School Committee. But fundamentally, it is like any other benefit – medical, dental, and vacation time.
The truth is, living in Hopkinton is unaffordable on almost every salary that town hall pays. But we as a community want our employees to be a part of our town, and to do things the “Hopkinton” way. This program would go a long way toward achieving that goal.
Calculations (for the nerds like me)
HopNews requested and received a spreadsheet of all town employees, salaries, hire dates, and other key information. The export provided did not, however, differentiate between full-time employees (FTE) and part-time employees, so for the calculations below we assumed any employee making $40,000 or more annually works full-time. Based on that assumption, there are 578 FTE’s, with the vast majority (436) working in the schools.
According to US census data, 46% of US households are married. For the purposes of this model we will assume that only married employees are likely to have children.
If we take the number of FTE’s (578) multiplied by the percentage of households married (46%), we arrive at 266, the probable number of married FTE’s.
According to US census data from 2021, the US population between the ages of 15-24 is 13% and between 25-34 is 13.7%. According to the CDC, the mean age of a first-time mother is 27 years old, so for the purposes of the model, we assume that the age range of 25-34 is most likely to have a first child. Because the majority of FTE’s work in the schools, and almost all positions at the schools require a Bachelors degree or higher, it is unlikely that the district would employ a first-time mother that is younger than 24. Therefore, we can safely eliminate the younger age band (15-24).
Thus, we multiply 266 FTE’s by 13.7%, which gives us 36, the probable number of FTE’s that may have their first child while employed by the town.
And while nothing would prevent an employee who already has children from moving them into Hopkinton’s schools, this is a much more complicated decision for a parent to make given the community connections they and their children will likely have established. We know not everyone will take advantage of this program, thus our numbers are likely overstated.
Now let’s discuss the costs.
If all 36 FTE’s took advantage of this program (which is unlikely), that would add a minimum of 36 students to Hopkinton Public Schools. 2022 census data shows that the average US family has 1.94 children, down from 2.33 children in the 1960’s. We’ll round up to 2 children per family, which would put us at 72 students enrolled at the maximum.
Hopkinton’s per-pupil expenditure is $15,870 per year. This ranks #289 in the Commonwealth, while the state average is $19,113. For the #1 rated school system in the state, we get a lot of bang for our buck.
At the least, this program would cost Hopkinton taxpayers $571,320, and at the most $1,142,640 annually.
To add a caveat to the per-pupil number, we’re not discussing the marginal cost per student, we’re just relying on public data from Mass DOE. The reality is, we don’t need to hire a new teacher for every one student, or add a librarian. So the marginal cost per student is actually quite low; certainly lower than $15,078.
Peter Thomas is the Editor-in-Chief at HopNews.