SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT Doug Lyons speaks on the School Department’s FY2024 budget. Seated on right are (from left) Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio, Town Counsel Thomas Mullen and Finance Committee chairman James Sullivan. (Neil Zolot Photo)
By NEIL ZOLOT
WAKEFIELD – Annual Town Meeting passed a $121,491,121 town budget for Fiscal 2024 Monday, May 15 in the Galvin Middle School auditorium. Ninety-seven people attended.
The tax levy will be the source of $110,473,688 of the budget with $17,413,934 coming from other available fund sources to comprise $118,887,922 passed in the first section of Article 1 of the Warrant. An additional $2,613,499 appropriated through the Light Department, comprised of $1,580,483 moving from the Light Operation Account to the Employees’ Group Insurance Account; $982,000 moving from the Light Operation Account to the Retirement Pension Accumulation Fund and $41,000 moving from the Light Operation Account to the Workers’ Compensation Account.
Although the entire budget was encompassed in one article, Town Meeting voted approval in sections by department: $49,705,191 for school system, part of a slightly higher $50,090,191 overall budget ($49,590,191 from the Tax Levy); $20,145,296 for Benefits and Administration (all from the Tax Levy); ($16,574,703 from Public Works Enterprise Funds ($0 from the Tax Levy); $14,031,311 for Protection of Persons and Property, i.e. Police and Fire Departments (all from the Tax Levy); $7,820,569 for the Public Works Department ($7,721,999 from the Tax Levy); $2,789,821 for General Government ($2,785,321 from the Tax Levy); $2,666,263 in miscellaneous items, such as Street Lights, Historical Commission and Cable TV ($2,107,387 from the Tax Levy); $2,252,945 for the Vocational School (all from the Tax Levy); $1,933,734 for the Library ($1,871,449 from the Tax Levy) and $968,790 for Human Services (all from the Tax Levy).
The school budget was the only item that generated lengthy discussion and required a vote count, with Town Councilors helping tabulate the numbers. Finance Committee member Daniel Sherman offered an amendment to reduce the appropriation by $200,000 to $$49,205,191 based on his determination unused money was part of the School Department budgets from Fiscal 2022 and 2023, including $1,000,000 in Circuit Breaker Special Education funds and $200,000 from Revolving Accounts like gate receipts. “That money could be spent in other areas,” he said. “The School Department does a phenomenal job; there’s no question about that. My concern is the excess money. I’m asking them to reduce the budget and return some of that money.”
He also extrapolated similar amounts for Fiscal 2025 and 2026.
From the floor, Bylaw Review Committee chair Daniel Lieber asked if the School Department had the ability to spend funds from one revolving account for another line item. Town Counsel Thomas Mullen answered no.
“A revolving account is not a single sum of money the School Committee can use at its own discretion,” School Committee chair Thomas Markham added. “It’s not ours to spend on items not germane to the activity it is used for.”
He pointed out that, despite state aid providing free school meals, current excess money from food services might be needed if the free meal program is discontinued.
Former Library Trustee Cindy Schatz said the Library and other departments stuck to the Finance Committee budget guidelines given them over the years, but the School Department did not. “The School Department budget is getting to the point where I believe it will be unsustainable,” she said.
Procedurally Town Meeting was asked to vote on the higher number, which would render the lower number moot if passed, which it did 61-29.
After the meeting, Sherman admitted, “I knew there was a low probability of it passing,” especially in light of the idea having been rejected by the Finance Committee 9-4. Nevertheless he felt he had accomplished “putting the schools on notice. They’re spending money they don’t have. I’d love to give money to the schools, but we don’t have it.”
He added, “I hope I’m wrong,” and that local receipts and other sources would yield adequate funding.