When the town decided to level fund the school budget – denying the schools’ request of an additional $1.36 million – it agreed to take on some non-educational expenses (equalling about $400,000) and promised to consider additional budget money if the School Committee really needed it.

This week, three months into the 2018 fiscal year, school officials formally requested additional money. Town officials said no.

The school department requested more money for special education – singled out by the Town Council as a potential reason to assign more money to schools – after special education enrollment in pre-kindergarten classes exceeded  budgeted expectations. (School districts are responsible for providing education for children with special needs starting at age 3.) The district also asked the town to take over its $45,000 sewer bill, as another aspect of the non-educational expenditures town officials said they wanted to take off the school district’s budget.

The sewer fee had been a topic of conversation since school officials suggested the town could take it over last June. While at first it seemed Town Council President Sue Cienki supported the transfer – she said during a joint meeting July 24 it had been left off a memorandum of understanding between the Town Council and the School Committee in error – the sewer fee transfer remained a hope rather than anything set down on paper. But, for the School Committee, that $45,000 symbolized the hope of hiring a curriculum director halfway through the school year.

At Tuesday’s School Committee meeting, Chairwoman Carolyn Mark said the town agreed to taking over the sewer costs in theory, but Town Manager Gayle Corrigan and School Committee President Sue Cienki said they couldn’t take on the sewer fee this year because of its own budget constraints. It’s unclear what those constraints are; the town’s budget for this year granted a tax decrease.

“They have essentially taken off the table that additional $45,000,” said Mark.

The town wants to wait until more of the school year has passed before it decides to grant any more money for special education, Mark said they were told.

“They’re looking … to see how the special education budget is running,” Mark said.

If by the third quarter, special ed spending continues to outpace the budget, then the Town Council may entertain appropriating additional money, she said.

Council President Cienki’s take on the situation is a bit different.

“The schools are working on letting their new director of special ed [Director of Student Services Lisa Hughes] get her feet ‘wet’ before they provide us information about what if anything their needs are,” she said via text message Thursday. “My take is we decided we would give the school department additional time and future meetings to best determine how the school department can demonstrate its fiscal needs within the ‘One Town’ fiscal year 2018 budget.”

According to Supt. Victor Mercurio and School Committee Finance Committee Chair Jeff Dronzek, the school department has known since July that enrollment numbers for the Pre-K class would necessitate hiring additional staff.

“They still have this belief that we’re going to find that money somewhere else in the special education budget,” Dronzek said, referring to town officials.

Mark said based on the town’s response to the special ed and sewer fee requests, getting supplemental funding to hire a library media specialist for the high school was more than unlikely.

“The likelihood that they will entertain a third supplemental appropriation for a librarian are zero to none,” she said.

– Elizabeth F. McNamara

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