By DAN TOMASELLO
NORTH READING — The school department’s fiscal year 2016 budget gap has decreased slightly.
The School Committee voted 3–1 to approve the revised modified level services FY’16 school budget, totaling $27,495,074, at the school board’s second budget workshop on May 5.
The Finance Planning Team and school officials identified $97,869 in additional revenue and potential savings for the school department recently, which reduced the budget gap to $309,695. As part of the revised budget motion, the School Committee voted to cut an additional $32,000 from an unidentified reductions list by eliminating the shared town/school facilities position, totaling $12,000, and reducing the unemployment insurance budget by $20,000, bringing the unassigned reductions total to $277,695.
School Committee Chairman Jerry Venezia and committee members Cliff Bowers and Janene Imbriano voted in favor of the $27,495,074 school budget and reducing the unidentified reductions to $277,695. School Committee member Mel Webster voted no.
Superintendent of Schools Jon Bernard outlined a list of reductions in order to close the school department’s budget gap.
“We believe this is the least distasteful in an already distasteful list,” said Bernard. “We believe preserving the classroom is the most important thing.”
Finance Director Michael Connelly agreed.
“I don’t think the administrative team looked at any of these items lightly,” said Connelly. “We worked hard to try and protect the classroom.”
Despite the potential reductions, Connelly said the FY’16 budget would address large class sizes at North Reading High School, which has been a huge concern for school officials during the budget process. He also said the budget will address the school system’s technology initiatives and the NRPS 2016 strategic plan.
“We feel we will be able to move the district forward,” said Connelly.
School Committee Chairman Jerry Venezia said he trusts school officials’ judgment when identifying potential unassigned reductions.
“This is the administration’s list and I have a lot of faith in them coming up with this list,” said Venezia.
Webster said Bernard tried convincing him before the meeting to sign off the plan to reduce the unassigned reductions, but he expressed several concerns about the potential cuts school officials put forward. He was particularly concerned about eliminating a custodian ($45,472), not hiring a full-time inclusion paraprofessional ($24,000) and not hiring a new part–time health teacher ($10,589) for the high school.
Webster also was concerned about not restoring the part–time physical education teacher, totaling $10,600, because he believes Athletic Director Dave Johnson should focus more on his AD responsibilities as opposed to teaching gym classes. He was also concerned about only hiring a full time digital learning specialist for the elementary schools instead of the two school officials previously recommended in the preliminary school budget.
“This is not a reflection of the administration and I know they have spent forever on this but I have a real problem with those five cuts,” said Webster.
Bernard empathized with Webster’s sentiment.
“We are not happy with any of these cuts and they are all important but we have racked our brains trying to preserve the classroom,” said Bernard. “That is the overarching goal here.”
Connelly said school officials have engaged in discussions with Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Wayne Hardacker about reassigning current school custodians to make sure the town’s schools are well maintained if the custodian position is eliminated. The school department hired a new custodian earlier this year because Hardacker said it was becoming increasingly more difficult for custodians to make sure the secondary schools were properly maintained.
“It’s not ideal but we feel we can put a plan in place to address the needs of that building,” said Connelly.
Assistant Superintendent Dr. Patrick Daly said school officials would be able to develop a creative plan if only one digital learning specialist is hired instead of two.
Despite being reassured by school officials, Webster said he was voting against the budget because of “principle.”
“I am tired of putting a budget together without adequate funding from the state,” said Webster.
Webster elaborated on the proposed unassigned reductions during the School Committee’s meeting on Monday.
“This is the least damaging in terms of classrooms,” said Webster.
Bowers noted during the workshop the House Ways and Means Committee voted last week to slightly increase Chapter 70 funding for schools, which he said would benefit the school system next year. However, he said townspeople should be aware school officials are in a pickle that is beyond their control.
“I think it’s important for the town and Town Meeting to understand we are short on funds,” said Bowers. “There is nothing they can do about it because we have a limited amount of revenue but they ought to know we are short.”
Venezia said school officials have carried unassigned reductions heading into Town Meeting in the past. He also reiterated comments he made recently the School Committee is not going to ask for more money on the floor of Town Meeting.
“We are committed to a balanced budget,” said Venezia. “We have to be clear we are only asking for a balanced budget and we are not trying to solicit support for anything beyond a balanced budget.”
Selectmen Chairmen Bob Mauceri noted it’s acceptable for school officials to have a supplemental handout outlining the unassigned reductions at Town Meeting. He said having information about the unassigned reductions is important because it will enable voters at Town Meeting to be more informed.
Comments from public
Marci Bailey, 21 Duane Dr. said it would be beneficial for townspeople to know “what they are expected to vote on when they come to Town Meeting.” While she said she respects school officials’ wishes to go into Town Meeting with a list of unassigned reductions, Bailey said it would beneficial for townspeople to know what are the unassigned reductions.
Sean Delaney, 7 Dix St., agreed.
“People will know these items will not be there,” said Delaney. “I think people will be able to truly see what is in the budget and what would be eliminated if no additional funds come in between now and Town Meeting.”
Deanna Castro, 9 Bridle Way, noted school officials are currently in the midst of contract negotiations with the North Reading Educators’ Association. She asked if school officials should implement the new curriculum leadership model while contract negotiations are taking place.
“Yes,” said Bernard.
Castro said she believes its “critical” for the school system to overhaul the curriculum leadership model to comply with state mandates sooner than later.
“I understand it’s very hard for the administration to be supervisors and yet we have state mandates that require we are supervising,” said Castro.
Bernard noted there is a curriculum leadership model currently in place and said the work undertaken by curriculum leaders will get accomplished even though school officials prefer overhauling the program over a three-year period. The proposal to delay implementing the curriculum leadership model would reduce the budget gap by $74,122.
The remaining unidentified reductions school officials have put forward are eliminating the restoration of the small capital and equipment budget ($20,000) and additional health insurance savings ($10,000). School officials also proposed not hiring a part–time central office receptionist ($15,841). School officials may look into recruiting a volunteer to handle some of the receptionist duties.
School officials also proposed reducing expense budgets by $14,127. Bowers noted the school department’s expense budgets have either been flat or frozen the past several years. He also said parent organizations often pick up the tab for school expenses because expense budgets have been either flat or frozen.