Schools Request $886,235 Over Guideline; FinCom OK’s $600,000

By Kim Siebert MacPhail

When Superintendent of Schools Jon Sills rolled out the FY14 school budget request in December, the difference between his proposal for a 5.86% increase over the FY13 budget and the Finance Committee’s (FinCom’s) guideline of a 2.15% increase equaled $1.216M. By last Thursday night, after a line by line scrutiny by the School Committee, the gap between the two amounts had been narrowed to $886,235. At the end of FinCom’s deliberations—during which members agreed that a case had been made for an increase over their guideline—the distance between Schools and FinCom had been further narrowed to $286,235 by FinCom’s approval of an additional $600,000 for the FY 14 school budget.

[To read a previous article about how the Schools approached minimizing budget increases, visit: https://www.thebedfordcitizen.org/2013/01/17/school-committee-examines-how-to-minimize-budget-increase/ ]

Before reaching this decision last Thursday, FinCom asked the Schools for answers to a series of questions regarding the major drivers for the requested budget increase: compliance with State and Federal mandates, higher enrollment—specifically at the high school, additional in-house Special Education programs, and greater demand for English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction and support.

Additional or related questions centered on the iPad one-to-one technology initiative, staffing increases, expected circuit breaker payments from the State for Special Education mandates, expansion of the kindergarten program from 4 to 5 days a week, and whether the food service is viable and self-supporting.

Prior to the vote that ultimately approved the $600,000 increase over the guideline, general concern was expressed among FinCom members about ongoing increases in the school budget.

FinCom member Stephen Carluccio said, “I understand the Schools are complicated, but it’s a very difficult scenario for the rest of the town. You look at the 10-year [analysis of all Town budgets] that Victor [Garofalo, Town Finance Director] did and it’s a tough problem. The one that jumps out at you for the size and the compounding of the costs is the Schools’—and then the [employee] benefits—[and] a lot of that is attributable to the schools. Again this year, the request  is a couple of percentage points higher than what everybody else is asking [for]; [for example, the Selectmen’s budget—they were asking for not much extra, and we gave that some pretty heavy scrutiny [and ultimately didn’t approve the request].

“I hesitate—[even though the schools] know what they’re doing and they know what they need, and I don’t think anybody’s wasting anything or asking for anything unreasonable,” Carluccio continued. “But, at some point, how does one continue [increasing] the bigger [budget] and everyone else just has to live with it?  I don’t know the answer to the question.”

“It’s a lot of money,” said FinCom member Rich Bowen, speaking of the $886,000 request. “But, I’m not sure I’d know where to trim. I think the only number [I can isolate] is [that] the average teacher’s salary seems to be up 3-4%, which [is] somewhat higher [than] wages [have generally risen].”

“That’s the teachers’ contract,” responded Bowen’s colleague Stephen Steele, who is FinCom’s liaison to the School Committee. “We knew about this and unfortunately we voted [for] the contractual obligation two or three years ago.”

“From a finance perspective,” Steele continued, “I’m assuming that the School Committee and the School administration are running things effectively. I just can’t find a way to choose something [from the budget] and pull it out. I can’t make the call. . . .I think the case was made that we need [the increase] for a certain reason.”

“I’m in the same place. This isn’t a very pretty comparison but it makes me think of the Defense budget. It’s so big,” said FinCom member Meredith McCulloch, to the general amusement of her colleagues and the audience.

“Education is so important,” McCulloch continued more seriously, “and it’s one of the things that makes this a really good town to live in and makes people want to buy their homes here and keeps everybody’s property [values] up and produces wonderful children. But it’s very hard to get a handle on what to do.

“I know this is just baked into the way the schools [are] set up. The fact that there are more steps on your salary scale than the rest of the town and that each year the increases are higher just means there’s an exponential difference between the budgets,” McCulloch added. “I don’t know how to suggest that you cut it, but it just disturbs me because it seems unfair to the taxpayer and to the other departments.”

“Do you have a plan for how you would handle the budget if you didn’t get the additional $838,000?” asked FinCom member Barbara Perry.

School Committee Chair Anne Bickford replied, “We haven’t—as a committee—gone down that path yet. If we need to we will. That would mean a lot of cuts.

“I guess one of the things I want to mention, too,” Bickford added, “is that part of the accounting in all this is that the $500,000 that came into the Town that went into the Stabilization Fund in the fall came about because the State gave us Chapter 70 funds for education. The $800,000 that’s potentially coming in from [the State budget] is actually an education number, too.

“So, part of what happens is [that] that money all goes into the [Town’s] General Fund—and I’m not saying it shouldn’t go into the General Fund—but when we get those kinds of infusions from the State, we don’t see them against the School budget,” Bickford continued. “Those increases from the State are real and are the State’s contributions to the local communities to try to meet the obligation that they have put [on] the local districts for education.”

“To answer your question about what we would we do without [the] $800,000—we would go through another whole series of [discussions] but it would mean cutting [regular education] programs,” Bickford summarized.


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