Published in the May 11, 2017 edition
By DAN TOMASELLO
NORTH READING — After two very challenging months, the School Committee voted 4-0 to approve the fiscal year 2018 budget last week.
The school system’s spending plan for FY’18 totals $$29,633,545, representing a 3.8 percent increase over FY’17’s $28,546,142 budget. As part of the level services budget, the school department will be adding a full-time equivalent (FTE) kindergarten teacher ($63,720) and paraprofessional ($27,996) at the Batchelder School. The positions are needed due to larger than anticipated kindergarten enrollment.
School Committee Chairman Cliff Bowers and fellow committee members Jerry Venezia, Janene Imbriano and Julie Koepke voted to approve the budget. Committeeman Mel Webster was not present at the meeting.
Superintendent of Schools Jon Bernard thanked the School Committee, Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee, Finance Planning Team, Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto, Finance Director Elizabeth Rourke and school officials for their assistance with closing a significant budget gap.
“We faced some lengthening challenges this year,” said Bernard. “We worked diligently with a lot of folks to have a balanced budget.”
Finance Director Michael Connelly said the Finance Planning Team was able to identify additional revenues to close the budget gap. He noted the school department had to make $366,423 in reductions to close the gap, which included scrapping plans to hire a .50 FTE half-day kindergarten teacher for the Little School. In turn, the Hood School will implement a hybrid kindergarten program next year that will be similar to a program offered at the Little School this year.
Additionally, Connelly said the school department abandoned its original proposal to add four positions in the budget as part of the district’s NRPS 2021 strategic plan. He also said the school department’s small capital budget and the food service program subsidy offset were both eliminated, and school expense budgets were “squeezed.”
Connelly said the FY’18 school budget “allows the district to meet contractual obligations with employees and employee unions.” He said the budget includes increases in operational costs to “ensure adequate preventative maintenance are in place to maintain the middle and high school campus.”
“The budget allows the district to maintain level services, avoids staffing reductions and protects the educational experience for students,” said Connelly.
While Connelly said school officials were able to avoid laying off personnel, he said there are a number of “financial risks” associated with the FY’18 budget. He said additional special education students could be placed outside of the district, and the school department is relying on one-time revenue sources.
Connelly said estimated teacher attrition savings “may not be realized,” and the school system will be limited in addressing “emergency maintenance issues” next year. He said the FY’18 state budget “may not fully fund” the Circuit Breaker program, which partially reimburses school districts for the cost of individual special education students. He also said the “food service program’s performance can be difficult to predict.”
“This is certainly not the budget we desired,” said Connelly.
SC not thrilled
While the School Committee was pleased the FY’18 budget is balanced, committee members expressed their immense displeasure with next year’s spending plan.
“I want to thank the Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee, School Committee, the administrative team and the Finance Planning Team for working so hard to get us to a balanced budget,” said Venezia. “I think my colleagues would agree with me that I am not happy with this budget. This is a level services budget pretty much because we didn’t have to reduce any personnel. We are really backing into this budget and are making cuts that are basically smoke and mirrors as far as to get to this bottom line number. I don’t think we are making the type of progress we necessarily should be as far as adding additional classes and reducing class size by backing into this budget. I am thankful that everybody worked so well together to get to this point, but it is still not satisfactory.”
“It appears we wait three to five years to get something we should have had three to five years sooner, and we get it because it’s a ‘have to’ situation,” said Imbriano. “It’s sad we can’t do more.”
Koepke concurred with Venezia and Imbriano’s point of view.
“With the risks we are taking, I hope nothing will arise,” said Koepke.
“It won’t take much to throw us out of balance,” Venezia added.
Bernard said school officials are very uncomfortable “with the level of risk” the budget is taking.
“We did this last year at a tune of $120,000,” said Bernard. “We are now at $180,000, and our ability to offset an unanticipated expense has been significantly compromised. We need to acknowledge there is more risk with this recommended budget than we are comfortable with, but we worked very hard to preserve the classroom experience. The cuts we made will be felt more at the administrative level than the classroom level.”
Bowers aired his frustrations about the school budget at his final meeting.
“This is the ninth budget that I have seen while on the School Committee, and it’s the worst than all I can remember,” said Bowers. “The constraints are compounded every year. This is the best we could do because we have limited resources in town. Hopefully the Berry property development will bring new revenue to town in a couple of years.”
In a statement sent to the Transcript via Facebook message, Webster said he would have voted against the FY’18 budget.
“If I had been able to attend the meeting, I would have voted no on the budget,” said Webster. “The main reason being the removal of the new teaching position at the high school. That is a critical position to help solve large class sizes in math and science. I understand that the town only has so much money to spend, but 28 or more students in high school math or science classes is unacceptable.”
There were several custodians in attendance during the meeting, but they did not speak. The school department sought requests for proposals for custodian services, which upset some residents during the school board’s public hearing on the FY’18 budget last month.
“The administration worked extremely hard to keep our staffing constant,” said Venezia. “We did not lose any people and did not let anybody go. There were no layoffs, and they worked very hard to do that. I want to commend them for keeping all of our people in place.”