Published in the April 27, 2017 edition
By DAN TOMASELLO
NORTH READING — School officials have developed a plan to close the fiscal year 2018 budget gap while avoiding lay offs, Superintendent of Schools Jon Bernard announced at the School Committee’s budget workshop on Monday.
Bernard said the Finance Planning Team met on Monday morning, where local officials announced additional revenues were identified. He said the additional revenues, coupled with an existing plan outlining budget reductions, enabled school officials to close the gap without eliminating personnel.
“I want to thank everyone for pulling together and producing some very positive news for us,” said Bernard.
The school system’s revised spending plan for FY’18 totals $$29,633,545, representing a 3.8 percent increase over FY’17’s $28,546,142 budget.
Finance Director Michael Connelly gave an overview of the $366,423 in reductions school officials proposed to close the gap. Bernard said school officials “are concerned about the level of risk” associated with the budget reductions.
“If we don’t do these things, we don’t see any other place to go other than personnel,” said Bernard. “We wanted to do everything we could to avoid that.”
As part of the level services budget, Connelly said the school department will be able to add a full-time equivalent (FTE) kindergarten teacher ($63,720) and paraprofessional ($27,996) at the Batchelder School in FY’18. He said the positions are needed in order to address higher than projected enrollment.
Connelly said school officials decided not to hire a .50 FTE half-day kindergarten teacher for the Little School. In turn, Connelly said the Hood School will implement a hybrid kindergarten program that would be similar to a program offered at the Little School this year.
According to Connelly, the Hood School will have two sections of kindergarten classes containing 22 students in each class.
“There are currently 44 students signed up for kindergarten at the Hood School,” said Connelly in an email to the Transcript. “Thirty three of those students are enrolled in full day classes and 11 students in half day. We would plan to run two combined sections, resulting in class sizes of 22 and 22 for half the day, and then 16 and 17 for the second half of the day.”
Additionally, Bernard said four positions included in the school department’s recommended budget as part of the NRPS 2021 strategic plan will not be funded due to budgetary constraints. The positions, totaling $184,788, were a 1.0 high school academic teacher ($63,720); a 1.0 FTE elementary special education team chairperson ($63,720); a 0.4 FTE Batchelder School psychologist ($25,488); and a 0.5 FTE Little School reading teacher ($31,860).
“We did not want to add the 2.9 positions at the expense of something we have in place,” said Bernard. “We did not want to eliminate staffing for a particular program so we could acquire something new.”
Connelly said the school department’s small capital and equipment line items would be eliminated, leading to a $15,000 reduction. He said the line item is used to fund small capital requests such as gutter or roof repairs.
“These line items were eliminated two years ago, so we were attempting to restore those items,” said Connelly in an email. “But this reduction would not make that possible.”
Connelly said the food service general fund subsidy would be eliminated, totaling $20,000. “The goal is the food service program would be self supported next year,” said Connelly.
School Committee Vice Chairman Jerry Venezia asked if eliminating the subsidy “is realistic.”
“It’s realistic, but there is a calculated risk to it,” said Connelly. “Our new contract language that we did get in with (food service provider) Chartwells does allow us some protection should they not achieve a break even program.”
Bernard noted school officials are working with Chartwells to potentially implement a catering program for school events next year.
Connelly proposed reducing school and district operating budgets by 3 to 3.5 percent, totaling $39,775. He said the proposed reductions would pertain to items such as instructional materials, technology equipment and general supplies. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Patrick Daly noted the reduction in the district’s expense budget will limit the school system’s ability to solicit bids for antivirus software.
“This will be the largest challenge,” said Connelly. “We are going to sharpen our pencils and make do with what we have.”
“We are not pleased about this,” said Bernard. “This caused the most consternation for us. We go through this every year.”
School Committee member Julie Koepke said reducing school operating budgets is going to place a greater burden on parents and parent associations.
“From my perspective, there is going to be more that parents are going to have to donate,” said Koepke.
Bernard said school officials will be “looking to tighten the belt” and will not be placing the burden on parents.
Connelly proposed increasing the bus revolving account offset by $15,000. He proposed increasing the facility rental offset by $10,000. Connelly said the school department will be looking to restructure an existing van driver position, leading to $20,000 in savings. He said the position can be restructured due to an upcoming retirement.
The finance director also proposed reducing the summer cleaning crew line item by $10,000. He proposed reducing legal expense budgets by $10,000. Lastly, he proposed eliminating the extraordinary maintenance line item, totaling $10,000.
“This is not the budget we desired, but it will be a budget that will meet the needs of students,” said Connelly.
Bernard said the school system will still be able to offer “quality programs” in FY’18, but said the budgetary reductions will be most felt by school administrators.
“We have worked really hard to make sure the classroom experience is not negatively impacted,” said Bernard.
After the discussion, Venezia commented, “what has essentially happened here is with all of the good work the Finance Planning Team, the Board of Selectmen, the Finance Committee and everybody did, we find ourselves using smoke and mirrors to back into a level services budget.”
“This is level services reduced as far as I am concerned,” Venezia continued. “Not level services enhanced. It’s literally backing up into the number after all of the good work that got us to this point.”
Finance Committee Chairwoman Abigail Hurlbut said if “everybody won the lottery, the schools would be the recipients.”
“We also need to acknowledge the town has had to do a substantial amount of cutting and belt tightening,” said Hurlbut. “It’s truly unfortunate.”
Venezia said, “the district is not progressing.”
“We are having a real hard time moving ahead and enhancing class size, curriculum and new programs,” said Venezia.
Selectmen Chairman Bob Mauceri said the only way for the town to address its revenue challenges is expanding its commercial tax base.
“We are moving forward with the sale of the Berry property, which is the beginning of our ability to expand our economic base,” said Mauceri. “It won’t be next year or the year after, but we are getting there.”
School Committee Chairman Cliff Bowers thanked school and local officials for their efforts in closing the budget gap.
“The team has worked long and hard on this to try and strain every possible way of meeting the budget,” said Bowers. “And it just doesn’t fit. We have worked it to prioritize everything, and this is where we are at.”
The School Committee is scheduled to vote on the FY’18 school budget on Monday, May 1.