The budget includes a librarian at the high school and a director of teaching and learning.
By Elizabeth F. McNamara
In a 7-0 vote, the School Committee passed a $39.1 million budget Tuesday night, which includes asking the town for $35.4 million, a nearly 4 percent increase – the maximum possible under state law – over last year’s allocation.
Originally, the School Committee had asked “budget owners” – building principals and other administrators – to level-fund their budgets, which resulted in a 2.9 percent increase for the town’s part of the budget due to contractual salary and transportation cost increases. But at their meeting March 20, the panel asked Supt. Victor Mercurio to revisit the budget with those budget owners to add in those items they deemed critical for the integrity of the district’s educational offerings.
On Tuesday, Mercurio presented $340,000 in additional budget requests, including $200,000 for maintenance (both ongoing and deferred), and $80,000 for a reading program for the lower elementary schools Frenchtown and Meadowbrook.
“It’s not that we’re trying to fill every possible percentage of what we’re able to ask for to fulfill a wish list,” said Chairwoman Carolyn Mark. “We’re trying to regain some ground.”
Mark was referring to the current (fiscal year 2018) budget, which fell short of what the committee had deemed necessary. A year ago, the School Committee asked the Town Council for a 4 percent budget increase ($1.3 million). The Town Council budget level-funded the schools but took around $530,000 in administrative costs off the district’s books. That resulted in the School Committee cutting the library media specialist position at the high school among other things.
In the current budget, the high school librarian is restored and there is money for the long-desired position of director of teaching and learning (i.e. a curriculum director).
“This isn’t a wish list, these aren’t luxuries,” said Committee member Matt Plain. “The suffering compounds over time” without sufficient budget money.
Plain suggested that school administrators attend the School Committee’s presentation of its budget to the Town Council since they are the boots on the ground who really know what’s needed.
“Everything we’re going to put before the Town Council we can back up,” he said. “Not just that it’s something good – we can back it up that it’s something that’s necessary.”
Committeeman Jeff Dronzek – chair of the district’s finance subcommittee – said he thought the committee should pass a budget even just slightly below a 4 percent ask from the town as a show of good faith.
“To push the limits because we can isn’t necessarily the best thing we can do,” he argued. “Yeah, if you don’t ask you don’t get it but I think we need to be cognizant of the entire situation…. I think if we put something out there that’s a little bit lighter than 4 percent, that puts us in a better negotiating position.”
Dronzek also expressed frustration that the committee still did not know the district’s fund balance (i.e. surplus). Typically, the town’s audit is completed by now and the district knows how much money it has in surplus. This year, for a variety of reasons, the town sought extensions through March 31 to submit audit figures to the state. While town officials said during a Town Council meeting March 26 that the audit was on track for state submission by the end of the week, town Finance Director Linda Dykeman did not offer any new information at Tuesday’s School Committee meeting about the school district’s fund balance.
Mercurio said he would have more information about the fund balance at the April 24 School Committee meeting. However, that wasn’t going to help in the current budget discussion since, by Town Charter, the School Committee must submit its budget request to the town by April 15.
After the committee approved the budget request, Chairwoman Mark stressed that this was just the start of the budget process and that there would be a lot more discussion before the Town Council votes on the final town budget in June.