By Kim Siebert MacPhail

At their Tuesday night meeting, the School Committee unanimously voted for a $34,214,568 budget figure for FY14, a 4.35% increase over FY13 and the same number that the Finance Committee (FinCom) voted last Thursday. Saying that her math was $40 off at the School Committee’s last budget vote on February 12, Chair Anne Bickford said that it would be necessary to make that adjustment with FinCom, but otherwise the totals matched.

The question of how to make accurate projections about how much homeless student transportation would cost in any given year and how to establish where the funds would come from was thornier than the much vetted and debated budget total. While the Schools’ line item for homeless student transportation in FY14 is $60,000, School Director of Finance David Coelho said that as of December, receipts for FY13 homeless transportation totaled $66,583, and by year’s end he projects that the tally will be between $133,000 and $166,000.

“The $60,000 you’ve always told us was an estimate,” said School Committee member Ed Pierce said to Coelho. “What’s going to be the differential between this year and next year? Is it likely to be a similar number [to the $166,000]?”

“I would imagine you’d have to assume that [we’d still have homeless students to transport next year],” Coelho responded. “The State is looking to fix this in 2014 and beyond, but if you had to use a static number, you’d choose the $166,000 figure. It’s really hard to tell because it’s a transient population, even though it’s controlled by the State as to where they get placed.

“If parents have decided that it’s better for the kids to be here than traveling an hour back and forth to their old school, then they come off [the list of students needing transportation], but then you get new kids coming in,” Coelho continued. “Today’s kids are not necessarily going to be the same kids as [on] May 1 or September 1, but you have to assume there’s going to be some critical mass. It’s a roll of the dice. . . .They may appear one day and not appear the next.”

“We got seven new kids in the last two weeks,” added Superintendent of Schools Jon Sills. “There is a great deal of flux in the number.”

“The $60,000 is a year away, and reimbursable in FY15,” said Pierce.

“That’s right,” Coelho replied. “Because the reimbursement is based on the State setting aside the money, who it goes to and how the claims are settled are subject to [the] appropriation[s] and to [how many towns submit homeless student transportation bills]. You may get 100% [of what you submit] or something lower,” explained Coelho.

Going to the Finance Committee for a reserve fund transfer to cover the homeless transportation bills was considered to be the best course of action to take, although that, too, could be problematic if the revenue from reimbursements that could pay the bill had not yet been certified and made available for other uses, or if the bills were extraordinarily high.

Committee member Abbie Seibert likened the situation to previous years when Special Education out-of-district costs affected the budget in similar ways.

“The agreement was that we’d budget what was known but with the understanding that above and beyond that we would probably be seeking a reserve fund transfer, because there is so much unknown about the population and about the expenses,” Seibert said. “But this is even more variable because it changes so much, and I don’t think we can predict it. If we were to increase our budget by $150,000, I would want to have an agreement that the reimbursement coming in would cover that.”

“We should keep on having this conversation before Town Meeting with the Finance Committee and the powers that be in the Town around the budget, that we have this situation and that there [needs to] be an agreement about how to handle it,” Seibert continued. “Not a formal, on paper agreement, but an understanding that the money will come in a year later, but the bill still has to be paid out of a budget somewhere, so. . .it has to be allocated in some sort of reserve fund.”

“If we have good fortune next year,” added Bickford, “and we’re able to absorb $60,000 because utilities are down or we have Special Education [savings], at the end-of-the-year reconciliation we will wind up saying, “Okay, we can absorb it.” But that doesn’t get to the $100,000 above that. I don’t believe the Finance Committee was expecting we would be able to absorb $100,000 into our budget when the Town is getting the revenue. I think they would prefer us to deal with this through the reserve fund because otherwise it gets added to our base, which [then] gets inflated.

“And for all we know, the State will cancel the program and there will be no [homeless] children and we [will] have $166,000—or whatever that number is. It seems to me if the revenues are going to be maintained on the Town side that we should be able to reach an agreement on the expenses,” Bickford concluded.

Correction: Previous editions of this story showed $34,331,451 as the committee’s approved budget number.

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