Finance Committee Approves First Draft of $44.9 Million FY23 Education Budget

Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad presented the first draft of the fiscal 2023 education budget to the Finance Committee last week on Zoom.

And while the word “lovefest” might be a little strong, some members took time to applaud the proposal. And there wasn’t a hint of disagreement.

The proposed $44,990,914 school budget is $1,360,875 higher than the base amount for the current fiscal year. That’s an increase of 3.1 percent. Conrad said one of the budget’s goals is to adhere to a 3.5 percent guideline.

In recent years the Finance Committee has endorsed a guideline of a 3.5 percent annual growth ceiling for the education budget. The committee hasn’t yet discussed guidelines for fiscal 2023, but that topic is expected to be a priority next month. But last week’s exchange didn’t suggest that the committee will reduce the suggested ceiling.

The primary variable in the proposed increase is staff salaries, Conrad said, representing a 3.7 percent hike. Operating expenses are projected to rise only 1.1 percent, or $76,153. Conrad acknowledged potential fluctuations in the cost of supplies and contracted services. The budget does not include expenses related to “recovery” from the pandemic.

Conrad’s position is that the $166,176 below the 3.5 percent guideline could be used for “unmet needs.” He delineated them: an additional preschool classroom, a part-time reading teacher at Davis School (now grant-funded), a part-time nurse, and a cooperative gymnastics program with Wilmington High School.

Conrad listed the primary “maintenance-of-effort” drivers as mandated special-education services, contractual obligations, investment in social-emotional learning, implementation of the literacy plan, and commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The superintendent told the committee that he expects to also seek renewal of the $450,000 reserve that has been outside the budget for the past two years to cover significant out-of-district costs for students with special learning needs. Member Ben Thomas said he hopes that the concept of a reserve can be addressed—he called it “a little budget hanging off the side.”

Thomas also said the committee should consider dropping another school reserve account of $518,000, which is the amount designated annually by state government to offset Bedford’s cost of providing education to military dependents. During the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick, that line item was frequently vetoed. But in recent years the payment to the town has been consistent and Thomas suggested the backup plan may now be unnecessary.

He also told Conrad and Julie Kirrane, the schools’ director of finance, and School Committee Chair Sarah Scoville, “Thanks for the work you put in for the past year. You guided us very well.”

Committee Chair Stephen Carluccio asked the superintendent if the proposed budget accounts for remedial needs following the months away from normal school. But Conrad pointed out that those concerns are being addressed currently, with smaller class sizes and assessments. “They are doing well so far,” he stated.

Members Paul Mortensen and Karen Dunn both asked Conrad if he foresees any unanticipated expenditures that would significantly affect the budget. Conrad did not, and Kirrane added that any issues are likely to be national in scope, like inflation and other economic trends.

The superintendent said that besides the financial parameters, his other budget goals are reducing Covid-related expenses, aligning with district-wide goals, meeting contractual obligations, and creating a “student-centered budget.”

Asked by committee chair Carluccio to explain that, Conrad said “Most of the classrooms we were in were teacher-centered—teachers delivered, students received, and gave it back on a test. A student-centered classroom is an opportunity for kids to take ownership of their learning, to demonstrate what they understand in different ways.” It’s a “dynamic” environment, he said, in which students work together in groups small and large.

During the months when attendance was compromised by pandemic restrictions, he continued, “because of the use of technology, learning was a lot more teacher-directed. We want to make sure that goal is captured as we budget for the next year.”

He also cited likely additional revenue sources, such as reimbursement for special-education transportation, additional preschool tuition, and an increased effort to rent school space to the community.

Conrad noted that the district also should save several thousand dollars because of the closing of the EDCO collaborative. But Thomas asked about potential significant costs related to the dissolution. “The closing of the collaborative could have a price tag. That’s being computed,” Conrad replied, adding, “We will need an executive session because of potential litigation.”

Conrad and Kirrane also acknowledged lower than anticipated enrollment in the elementary grades. Staffing has been adjusted accordingly. Student population at the junior high and high schools is stable; kindergarten enrollment this year totals 169.

“If we do in fact have a bubble and it doesn’t sort itself out, it will go up through the system and that could be a concern later on,” Conrad said. The net decrease from the projected total is 22; the projected total population was 2,581.

Finance Committee member David Powell asked why an enrollment “bubble” represents a problem. “Doesn’t lower enrollment mean lower cost?” he asked. Conrad acknowledged that “in the past, we had enrollment increases as a budget driver.” Kirrane added that the trend is being closely monitored because it can “turn around quickly.”

Member Erica Liu asked if the enrollment change is a result of children opting for private school or home school. Kirrane replied that the changes reflect anticipated students who never arrived, not students who withdrew.

“A student who doesn’t enter is hard to pinpoint. But transfers we can tell,” Conrad said. “Last year we did look at our exits,” Kirrane said. “We did not show extraordinarily high exits to private schools or home.”

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763

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