By Kim Siebert MacPhail
At their meeting last Thursday, February 14, the Finance Committee (FinCom) considered a revised request from the Schools for an additional $181,231 above an added $600,000 that FinCom approved on February 7. In a vote that failed by only one “aye” to gain approval for the full amount, FinCom agreed instead to a lower figure of an additional $121,191, saying the Schools can “find [the $60,000 difference] somewhere” in their $34,224,608 budget.
Last Thursday’s meeting was the most recent in an already several-months-long back-and-forth between FinCom and the School Committee to reach agreement on the Schools’ budget before Town Meeting. Prior to the February 14 vote— as noted above— FinCom voted on February 7 to increase the Schools budget by $600,000 over the established 2.15% guideline, acknowledging that the Schools had a legitimate case for additional funds needed to address cost drivers, such as federal and state mandates, an increased high school population that has resulted in larger-than-sustainable class sizes, system-wide demographic changes, and the need for expanded instruction and support for English language learners.
The additional $600,000 approved by FinCom on February 7 left a gap of $286,235 between the amount the Schools requested and FinCom’s approved figure.
[To read the article about that FinCom meeting, see: http://www.thebedfordcitizen.org/2013/02/12/schools-request-886235-over-guideline-fincom-oks-600000/ ]
Following the FinCom vote on February 7, the School Committee’s meeting on February 12 brought another round of deliberations and cuts. Once those reductions were approved, the remaining gap of $286,235 was narrowed to $181,191—or to $121,191 if FinCom would agree to a procedural change in the accounting for the $60,000 allocated for transportation of homeless students. These additional school budget decreases came on top of previous cuts that had incrementally, over time, chipped away at a $1.216M discrepancy between School Committee and FinCom budget totals.
To read about the cuts made on February 12, visit: http://www.thebedfordcitizen.org/2013/02/13/schools-make-more-cuts-return-with-revised-budget-total-to-fincom/ ]
To read more about the drivers of the School budget increase, see: http://www.thebedfordcitizen.org/2012/12/12/preliminary-school-budget-shows-5-86-rise/ ]
At FinCom’s meeting last week on February 14, the Schools returned once again to discuss their revised request for additional funds—$181,191—with two main agenda points:
- The accounting for the $60,000 line item for homeless student transportation, and
- A five-day kindergarten.
Homeless student transportation: Transportation for temporarily-housed homeless students who choose to return to their schools of origin is mandated by the State. Reimbursements to affected communities are received one year after the transportation services have been rendered. In the meantime, the bill for homeless student transportation must be paid by the host town, and in Bedford’s case, the line item appears in the Schools’ budget, although the reimbursement from the State—when it comes—are allocated to the Town’s General Fund, not to the Schools’ account.
The Schools view the budgeted transportation cost as reimbursable and prefer that it be acknowledged as such, rather than as an expense for which there is no compensation.
After considering this perspective, FinCom generally agreed with the underlying premise, but some members worried that the funding was too fungible, especially so early in the State’s own budget deliberations.
Five Day Kindergarten: Superintendent Jon Sills made a presentation to FinCom about why Bedford needs to expand the current 4-day kindergarten program to 5 days. The School Committee received the same presentation at its February 12 meeting before voting not to cut that line item from the FY14 budget. In essence, the presentation showed how pressured kindergarten has become, stating that play has been squeezed out due to curriculum mandates.
The amount needed to fund the additional kindergarten staff time is $116,000, achieved by adding 0.2 to each 0.8-week kindergarten teacher’s work schedule. Superintendent Sills calculated that going to a five day schedule will yield over 200 additional school hours for kindergarteners.
[To read an article about this presentation to the School Committee, visit: http://www.thebedfordcitizen.org/2013/02/13/schools-explain-why-bedford-wantsneeds-five-day-kindergarten-program/ ]
After the presentation, FinCom members were incredulous at what Common Core standards expect of a kindergartener. Some felt it was unlikely that these standards were universally achievable. Others wondered whether adding the extra class time was premature, given that the Common Core has not yet been fully implemented.
“I’m not an educator, but I struggle with the concept that a child in kindergarten is learning concepts that will help him take on Algebra I in the eighth grade,” said FinCom member Bob Kenney, about the curriculum impacts of aligning with the Common Core. “That just blows my mind.”
“It’s daunting,” agreed Superintendent Sills. “One of the things we struggle with now is that we have kids in third grade who really don’t have their numeracy down. They need to know their times tables [reflexively]. That just haunts them all the way through. So the whole notion of starting earlier to get kids numerically proficient,–just around basics— does make sense.”
Sills added that, as of two years ago, 188 school districts out of 307 statewide had already gone to a five-day kindergarten schedule. While it’s true that some districts have increased kindergarten time for a fee, the count of 188 districts, Sills said, did not include any of the pay-for-program districts.
“[These statistics are from] before the Common Core came in. . . .There’s just no [other] way that districts can comply with the Common Core. The kids are going to be tested. These are high-stakes tests—in the same way that MCAS [tests are now]. Kids will not be allowed to graduate unless they meet these standards and there’s no way—particularly for our struggling learners—that they would be able to be on par. If we don’t start immediately, I guarantee you that there’ll be 40-50 kids moving into first grade that’ll already be behind.
“We’re determined in Bedford not to turn kindergarten into 5th grade,” Sills added, “but it’s critical not to lose the time for play, and what our teachers are going to be compelled to do is to learn how to teach [the higher standards and concepts] through activity and play. There are expeditious ways of teaching these things, but kids don’t hang on to [what they learn that way]. Holding little kids in place for 6½ hours a day for memorization is preposterous. It’s damaging. So we simply need more time.”
“We can’t do this one by absorbing [the cost] elsewhere,” added School Committee Chair Anne Bickford.
“Why not?” challenged FinCom’s Kenney. “You’ve got $34M. The bottom line is that if you have 2,400 students in your system, that’s $14,256 per student with that budget you’re proposing. We are running a very expensive school system.”
“We are meeting a lot of needs within the school system that we are required to meet,” responded Bickford. “Those needs come from a lot of different places. They come from the population that we serve and they come from the townspeople and they come from the state and they come from the federal government.
“Every year, we begin [building the budget by] asking, ‘What is the population that we’re serving?’ and building it from the bottom up,” Bickford added.
After the vote that failed to approve the full $181,191—but did approve $121,191—FinCom member Rich Bowen said he believed it was a mistake not to approve the $60,000 for homeless transportation costs, considering that the money will be reimbursed.
Bowen’s colleagues Stephen Carluccio and Barbara Perry responded that they believed those who voted against the $60,000 were not voting against funding the homeless student transportation.
“I know it kind of got tied to the homeless transportation,” said Carluccio, “but the way I’m interpreting the vote is ‘It’s just $60,000, and we’d like it if you could find another way to pay for it.”
The School Committee will meet again on February 26 to consider FinCom’s latest budget recommendation and decide what course of action to take in preparation for Town Meeting.