Published in the March 24, 2016 edition
By DAN TOMASELLO
NORTH READING — Staring at an initial school budget proposal of $29 million that School Committee member Mel Webster recently called “a fantasy,” the School Committee has chopped the fiscal year 2017 budget request by $543,183.
Superintendent of Schools Jon Bernard recently requested a preliminary FY’17 school budget of $29,195,372 representing a 6.2 percent increase ($1,700,298) over FY’16’s budget figure of $27,495,074. Finance Director Michael Connelly said the revised FY’17 modified level services budget currently totals $28,652,189, which is a $1,157,115 or 4.2 percent increase over the FY’16 school budget.
Connelly said the School Committee identified a list of reductions to reduce the FY’17 budget gap during a budget workshop last week. He said the current budget gap, which includes three new positions for the school system’s NRPS 2021 strategic plan, is $336,940. Connelly said if the three NRPS 2021 positions are cut from the proposed FY’17 budget, the budget gap would be whittled down to $151,348.
Bernard originally included 10.2 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions in the preliminary FY’17 school budget, including 6.0 FTE’s for NRPS 2021. The School Committee has reduced the total number of staffing requests to 6.0 FTE’s.
The positions currently included in the FY’17 school budget are 3.0 FTE positions for special education, totaling $148,934. School officials have requested a 1.0 FTE special education teacher for the middle school’s pathways program, totaling $61,864. School officials have also requested a 1.0 FTE special education teacher for the high school’s connections program, totaling $61,864. The high school is requesting a 1.0 inclusion paraprofessional for the connections program, totaling $25,206.
The School Committee identified three NRPS 2021 positions as being a high priority for the school system. The positions are a 1.0 middle school psychologist ($61,864), a 1.0 special education teacher ($61,864) and a 1.0 academic teacher for North Reading High School ($61,864).
Webster stressed the three NRPS 2021 positions are necessities.
“At the budget workshop, the committee agreed these three positions that are part of NRPS 2021 should be part of the modified level services budget,” said Webster. “We have two guidance counselors at the middle school for over 600 students. It’s well over the recommended level for students. There are a lot of schools our size that have five or six school psychologists or guidance counselors. It’s the most critical age for kids to have that psychological support.”
Webster noted the four special education positions are needed in order to keep students in the district. He said if the positions are not included in the FY’17 school budget, the students in the two programs will likely be placed outside of the district at far greater cost.
“These positions are going to save us $400,000 that we would have to spend on out of district placements,” said Webster.
Webster also said the academic teacher is needed at the high school to reduce class sizes.
Deanna Castro, 9 Bridle Way, said it’s “more than alarming” only one academic teacher has been included in the FY’17 school budget to address the high school’s large class sizes. She asked Bernard why only one high school teacher is included in the FY’17 budget.
Bernard said the administrative council works together when identifying budget priorities and positions in the school budget.
“These positions strike a balance,” said Bernard. “It’s about serving the needs across the district. I will say one academic teacher does make an impact.”
Despite the School Committee’s desire to eliminate or reduce the school system’s fees, committee members have reluctantly agreed to raise bus, athletic and extra curricular fees as well as institute a parking fee for high school students as part of the FY’17 school budget. Connelly said the fee increases would generate $127,000 in revenue for the school system.
The School Committee agreed to raise the extra curricular user fee for middle and high school students from $125 to $200, resulting in an expected $27,000 in revenue. Webster noted the extra curricular fees allow students to participate in as many clubs as students choose.
The school board also agreed to institute a student parking fee of $200 for high school students, leading to an expected $45,000 in revenue. The School Committee also agreed to raise the athletic user fee from $100 to $200 for high school students playing a third sport, and raising the family cap from $1,200 to $1,300, leading to an expected $10,000 in revenue.
Additionally, Connelly said the FY’17 school budget also includes a component of raising bus fees due to the school department’s new bus transportation contract which was higher than school officials hoped. The proposal entails increasing the individual student bus fee from $300 to $400, and the family cap from $500 to $650. Connelly said the bus fees would generate an expected $45,000 in revenue to offset the bus contract increase for students who pay for busing.
School Committee member Jerry Venezia raised concerns about the proposed fee increases.
“I have serious reservations about all of the fee increases,” said Venezia. “We haven’t increased fees or implemented additional fees in awhile, but I am struggling with it. I said I would vote for it if that is what the committee wanted to do, but it’s a last resort.”
“We are adding $82,000 in fees just to get by,” said Webster.
Cuts to proposed budget
The School Committee reduced the FY’17 school budget by making several cuts to the proposed budget, totaling $257,664.
The school board agreed to eliminate the need to hire a full-time wrestling coach because the MIAA extended the Lynnfield-North Reading co-operative wrestling team, leading to a $6,335 reduction. The School Committee also voted to implement a pilot hybrid kindergarten model at the Little School, which Connelly said eliminates the need for .05 FTE kindergarten teacher, totaling $30,000. The school board also agreed to reduce a 1.0 FTE general paraprofessional at the middle school to a .50 FTE paraprofessional, resulting in a $13,500 reduction.
The School Committee agreed to further reduce the food service program offset by $10,000. Committee members agreed to reduce utility budget estimates by $15,000.
Despite school officials’ belief another custodian is needed to properly maintain the secondary schools complex, the School Committee agreed to eliminate the $43,380 1.0 FTE second shift custodian included in the preliminary FY’17 school budget.
“The custodians we have are doing a great job, but we don’t have enough custodians at the middle and high school,” said Webster.
Connelly said the plan to restructure the buildings and grounds department by eliminating the HVAC position ($71,815) and using those funds to hire an energy management system service contractor ($17,520), HVAC service contractor ($17,100), chillers/cooling tower service contractor ($15,000), and a landscaping company ($11,655) remains in the proposed FY’17 school budget.
According to Connelly, the School Committee agreed to eliminate the school department’s request for restoring school expense budgets, resulting in a $57,449 savings.
Webster acknowledged the School Committee will most likely approve the FY’17 budget on April 25, but he said most of the cuts and the fee increases are “ridiculous.” He blamed the State Legislature for failing to overhaul the Chapter 70 funding formula for the school department’s current budget gap.
“We have to convince our legislators we need more money from the state because this is going to happen every year,” said Webster. “There are things here we shouldn’t be doing.”
Venezia said school officials will be outlining the revamped school budget, including the cuts and fee increases, to the Finance Planning Team on Friday.
“I don’t know where we are going to go with this, but we are going to have to hold our ground at this point,” said Venezia.
Webster concurred with Venezia’s sentiment.
“I would be willing to compromise if I didn’t think these positions were critical, but I think we have already compromised with the fees and the custodian we need badly,” said Webster.
School Committee member Cliff Bowers echoed Venezia and Webster’s sentiments.
“These are hateful cuts,” said Bowers.
“In addition to the fees,” added School Committee member Julie Koepke.
Connelly noted the School Committee will be holding a public hearing on the proposed FY’17 school budget in the high school distance learning lab on Monday, April 4, beginning at 7 p.m.
Castro encouraged school officials to have State Representative Brad Jones (R-North Reading) and State Senator Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) attend the public hearing. Bernard said he would look into the request.
Venezia expressed his support for Castro’s proposal.
“They need to hear what we have to say and we have to see if there is any potential relief on the way,” said Venezia.
Webster encouraged local residents to attend the public hearing.