FinCom’s Sherman: It’s too much money
By NEIL ZOLOT
WAKEFIELD — The School Committee approved a $50 million spending package earlier this week, but the request will include utilizing grant funds and possibly charges to revolving accounts as officials try to take some of the load off local taxpayers.
The Fiscal 2024 School Department budget request, covering the 2023-24 academic year, was set at $50,090,191, but the ask to the town has been reduced to $49,590,191, with the difference to be made up with grant funds and, possibly, assessments to revolving accounts.
“We’ll work with the town to come up with the money to offset the previous ask,” School Superintendent Doug Lyons said. “We have American Rescue Plan Act funds coming to us. Between that and the revolving accounts, we’ll allocate the difference.”
“We’re asking the town to allow us to spend $50,090,191; how we get there is what we’re following,” School Committee Chair Tom Markham added.
Revolving accounts are funds generated through donations and gate receipts for athletics and performing arts, among other things. “Money from revolving funds pay for those programs,” School Business Administrator Christine Bufagna explained. “We can’t move revenue generated from a revolving account to a program, but there can be charges to the revolving account for supplies and custodial services. In the past those programs couldn’t afford to do that.”
The $50,090,191 represents a 5.22% increase over the Fiscal 2023 budget of $47,607,077. The $49,590,191 figure mentioned Tuesday night is a 4.17% increase. “We’ll get to the 5.22% increase; we’ll have to figure out how,” School Committeeman Mike Boudreau said. “The funding mechanism will be flexible.”
Finance Committee member Dan Sherman objected to the $50,090,191 request during the official Public Hearing on the budget that was part of Tuesday’s meeting. “I’m requesting you reduce this budget,” he said. “5.22% is not sustainable. I’m forecasting a deficit of $2 million, which means we’ll run out of money in Fiscal 2026. I recommend a 4% increase.”
He pinpointed high levels of money in revolving accounts, and unused Special Education Circuit Breaker aid as sources to reduce the budget. “Why are they asking for such a huge increase when they have all this cash lying around?” he asked rhetorically. “I suggest the School Committee reduce these amounts to reduce fees or offset other items. We should be ending the year with a nominal amount. To have a million dollars lying around doesn’t make sense to me.” It could be used for better purposes than sitting in an account, a reference to his figures that indicate $900,000 in unused money from 2021 and 2022.
“We need to see if we have money leftover at the end of the year we can share with the town,” Lyons acknowledged.
“The majority of funds are not free to be used at our discretion,” Markham commented. “We don’t have the discretion to move funding outside its intended purpose. I don’t think a parent paying a fee would expect that money to be used for anything other than its intended purpose.”
Sherman was the only member of the public to speak during the Public Hearing. In later discussion on the motion to accept the budget proposal, Boudreau acknowledged the Fiscal 2024 budget “doesn’t solve Fiscal 2025 or 2026. The expenses will still be there. The next School Committees will have to confront how we’ll fund it.”
In discussion of the budget at the March 13 School Committee meeting, Lyons said the budgeting process is “not just about one year at a time. It’s one year with a look towards the next 2-3. We’re trying to plan budgets to retain our teachers, but also be sustainable,” but costs usually increase at a faster rate than revenue. A possible issue could be the need for funding if school meal aid from the state is cut off.
Member Stephen Ingalls said he thought the 5.22% increase ask was reasonable, but understood Sherman’s point of view. “We’ve struck a balance,” he feels, but Sherman is not satisfied. He still forecasts a $1.5 million shortfall for the town despite the lower school budget ask.
During the meeting Lyons also shared numbers from the state Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education on Wakefield’s Foundation Budget, the minimum amount a community is required to spend to provide an adequate education. In Fiscal 2023 Wakefield’s Foundation Budget was $40,977,611, with the town’s Required Contribution being $33,133,651. In Fiscal 2024, the Foundation Budget is $43,061,535, a 5.09% increase, with the town’s Required Contribution $34,517,798, a 4.39% increase.
In Fiscal 2023 Chapter 70 Education Aid was $7,843,960, which is rising to $8,543,737 in Fiscal 2024, an 8.92% increase.