School Committee Examines How to Minimize Budget Increase

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

School Dept Seal-1With a preliminary Superintendent’s proposal for next year that would increase the current year’s budget by 5.86% and a Finance Committee guideline of 2.15% for all Town department budget increases including Schools,the School Committee examined ways on Tuesday night to breach the gap between the two amounts. Superintendent Jon Sills and School Business Manager David Coelho, charged by the Committee to present cascading reduction scenarios, brought forward a line item proposal that reduced the proposed increase— in one-half percentage point increments—by 1.65%, from 5.86% down to 4.21%. Each one-half percentage point of the $34,709,554 budget represents $160,000.

Sills began the presentation by establishing the principles that governed how the reduction task was approached. Accordingly, he determined that the School budget must:

  • Comply with state and federal mandates, including the newly adopted Common Core of Learning. Most mandates are unfunded or only partially funded by the government.
  • Address demographic issues, such as increasing enrollment, class size, and changing statistical characteristics of the student body.
  • Continue and expand cost savings with in-house Special Education programs that have already saved “literally millions.”
  • Maintain existing programs.

It was noted, also, that contractual obligations alone account for 2.71% of the increases. “Already,” said Committee member Brad Hafer, “that’s more than the guideline.”

“That’s everything we do,” added Coelho.

Hafer continued, “I added in current education maintenance, took out the savings we got from in-house Special Education, and [added in] the mandates, and that added up previously to [a] 4.17% increase over last year.”

Nevertheless, Sills and Coelho found a total of 23 possible line item reductions for the School Committee’s consideration, including some that resulted from reorganizing programs,postponing repairs,generating benefits from potential energy savings,or re-shuffling/cutting of support staff. The Committee reviewed and discussed each item individually, either agreeing with the reduction or placing a “hold” on it for further discussion.

Some of the “held” items that will be revisited next week at the January 22 meeting include: postponement of the iPad pilot program at the middle school; elimination of curriculum coordinators’ stipends in science and social studies at the elementary school; reduction of education assistants at Lane and in the Bedford High computer lab; elimination of professional development time for art, music, and physical education teachers that would allow Program Administrators to perform more intensive teacher evaluations; and elimination of a plan to expand to a 5-day, full-time kindergarten.

The Committee contributed other suggestions for further reductions in computer purchases and for phasing in—rather than completely eliminating—kindergarten expansion. Chair Anne Bickford directed members to send in other ideas to the Superintendent as they occur.

Taking into account only the line items that were not put on “hold” for further discussion, the agreed-upon cuts reduced the original Superintendent’s budget proposal from the 5.86% increase to a 5.03% increase.

“It’s a start,” said Bickford.

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