Published in the May 5, 2016 edition
By DAN TOMASELLO
NORTH READING —The School Committee unanimously approved the school department’s fiscal year 2017 budget totaling $28,546,142 on Monday.
The FY’17 school budget represents a 3.8 percent increase ($1,051,068) over the $27,495,074 school budget for FY’16.
Finance Director Michael Connelly said the FY’17 school budget includes two full-time equivalent positions (FTE) as part of the NRPS 2021 strategic plan. The positions are a 1.0 FTE middle school psychologist ($61,864) and a 1.0 FTE special education teacher at North Reading High School ($61,864). Connelly said the School Committee decided during its budget workshop last week the two positions were needed to meet students’ needs.
The FY’17 school budget also includes 3.0 FTE positions for special education, totaling $148,934.
Parking fee dumped, other fees to rise
The controversial $200 student parking fee that would have generated $45,000 in revenue for the school department was eliminated from the FY’17 school budget. The School Committee and parents expressed their opposition to the student parking fee over the course of the past two months.
Connelly said the other fee increases are still included in the school budget for FY’17. The extra curricular fee for middle and high school students will increase from $125 to $200. The proposed athletic user fee hike for students playing a third sport will increase from $100 to $200, and the family cap will increase from $1,200 to $1,300. Due to the higher than anticipated busing contract, the individual student bus fee will increase from $300 to $400, and the family cap will increase from $500 to $650.
7th grade foreign language survives the knife
Connelly said the school department’s budget gap was $119,547 before the School Committee approved a series of reductions in order to balance the budget. The school department’s budget gap was $350,440 in mid April.
The finance director said school officials discussed the budget gap with Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto, who helped identify additional funds in order to help school officials reduce the budget gap to $119,547.
“We have worked very hard with the town administrator and the Finance Planning Team to identify about $230,000 in additional revenue,” said Connelly. “We are very appreciative.”
The most controversial reduction discussed, but not adopted, was the reduction of a 0.7 FTE seventh grade foreign language teacher at the middle school, totaling $29,000. Connelly said the proposal would have entailed having middle school students begin taking foreign language in eighth grade instead of seventh grade. Seventh graders would take other electives such as video production instead of foreign language.
“We have added other course offerings and these students would opt into these classes instead of the foreign language program,” said Connelly.
Superintendent of Schools Jon Bernard noted the current seventh grade foreign language program has students take a semester of foreign language, which is split between a quarter of French and Spanish. He said 95 percent of seventh graders are enrolled in the foreign language program.
School Committee Vice Chairman Mel Webster and School Committee member Julie Koepke both raised concerns about the elimination of the seventh grade foreign language program.
“It’s not a big step backwards, but it’s a little step backwards,” said Webster. “Once something is gone, its hard to get it back.”
“While its just a exploratory class, I think it does help students make an informed decision about what language they want to take in the eighth grade,” said Koepke.
Bernard said he discussed the seventh grade foreign language program reduction with Middle School Principal Catherine O’Connell while trying to find areas to reduce the school budget gap. He noted the proposal would not have been put on the table if the school department were not facing an $119,547 deficit.
“On the surface, it looks like we are eliminating foreign language in grade 7 and that is true,” said Bernard. “It’s been described as a cultural experience and Ms. O’Connell said to me she felt it could be taught in a social studies course. Ms. O’Connell saw there is greater value in students being provided an opportunity to take more rigorous elective courses such as video production.”
Assistant Superintendent Dr. Patrick Daly noted NRPS 2021 includes a component to expand the middle school foreign language program. He said only reason the plan to eliminate the grade 7 program was included in the list of reductions was to balance the school budget.
After a discussion, School Committee member Jerry Venezia proposed having Bernard and Connelly go back and take another look at the school budget to find ways to save $29,000 and preserve the seventh grade foreign language program.
Bernard expressed his support for the proposal and said he would take a closer look at the school department’s expense budgets.
Webster also requested Bernard identify how much it would cost to implement a full foreign language program in the seventh grade.
Connelly said the 1.0 FTE academic teacher at the high school that was originally included in the FY’17 school budget was reduced by .60, leading to a $37,118 reduction. The position was originally budgeted at $61,864.
“We wanted at least 1.0 FTE, but we will still be to able to address class sizes at the high school,” said Connelly.
In response to a question from Duane Drive resident Marci Bailey, Bernard said the .4 teacher would teach two classes at the high school.
Bailey said the new academic teacher “doesn’t solve” the high school’s large classes.
“It’s better than nothing, but not much,” said Bailey.
Connelly said the additional circuit breaker offset for special education students placed outside of the district was reduced by $60,000 because the House of Representatives budget increased the circuit breaker reimbursement rate in the state budget.
According to Connelly, the remaining budget reductions are “discretionary reductions.” He said the budget for human resource ads/postage was reduced by $3,000. The custodial overtime budget was reduced by $5,000. The legal expense budget was decreased by $5,000. The nurse substitute coverage budget was reduced by $3,000 because Connelly said the school department has expanded its internal nurse substitute pool.
Connelly said school officials agreed to reduce the food service program general fund offset by $5,000. He said school officials agreed to reduce the number of days staff members can work during the summer, leading to a $13,000 reduction. School officials also agreed to reduce the individual vocational transportation budget by $4,429.
Financial risks involved
While the school budget is balanced, Connelly noted there are several financial risks involved with the plan.
Connelly said there is a possibility additional special education students could be placed outside of the school system. He also said the state budget might not fully fund the circuit breaker revenue offset projection.
“We are hoping the House budget carries through the Legislature and is fully funded,” said Connelly.
In response to a question from Venezia, Connelly said school officials expect to be pre-paying $100,000 in special education tuition.
Venezia said unanticipated foreseen special education costs are a major concern heading into FY’17.
“I am at the point now where if we are not anticipating these expenses in the next fiscal year and if they are not identified now, we don’t budget for them,” said Venezia. “And if the need arises, we go back to the Finance Committee or Town Meeting. We continuously try to absorb these unexpected expenses in special education, and it ultimately reflects what we do in our budget.”
Connelly also said new revenue, including fee increases, might not meet projections. He said estimated teacher attrition savings might not be realized. He said utility costs for operating the middle and high school campus remains a concern. He also said the food service program is difficult to predict.
The School Committee will continue discussing the FY’17 school budget at its next meeting on Monday, May 9.