After a year of anticipation that a property tax hike would be necessary to avoid drastic cuts in school programs, better than expected budget figures appear to have eliminated the need for an override of Proposition 2 1/2.
The School Committee last night approved a $62,640,548 spending plan for the coming fiscal year that preserves programs at all the town’s schools, and adds a few enhancements, while meeting the guidelines set by the Board of Selectmen.
The committee trimmed $650,000 from the figure initially recommended by Superintendent Bella Wong in January to meet the threshold determined by selectmen to avoid the tax increase.
“The exact figures are still fluid, we’re still fine tuning,” said Executive Director Hans Larsen. “No final decision has been made, but it appears unlikely we will have to go with an override,”
He said this year’s funding from the state came in higher than budgeted, and that next year’s appears to again be higher than originally projected. In addition, he said health insurance premiums did not climb as high as expected, and the mild winter has saved the town cash that would have paid for snow removal.
That all combined to allow selectmen to reconsider the anticipated need for a $5 million override this year, and determine that modest budget increases in town and school spending could be paid from the town’s reserve fund.
“We’re in good shape,” School Committee Chair Suzy Littlefield said last night.
Last year and in years there had been months of debate over proposed cuts in the school budget and tension between the schools and other town departments.
This year, changes in the school department that included putting Business Manager Ruth Quinn Berdell on a voluntary paid administrative leave last November and Wong’s announcement that she would resign at the end of July, meant a delay in formulating the budget.
Recently, however, the process moved forward as school and town officials worked together, Littlefield said.
“It was really a situation where all hands were on deck,” she said. “There was a great deal more transparency in the budget process this year.”
Members of the School Committee, Advisory Committee and Board of Selectmen met for several hours over the course of a week with school officials to formulate the budget, according to Littlefield.
“Members of the Advisory Committee were right there and were able to get their questions answered directly from the people who had the figures,’’ she said.
Larsen agreed that the process went smoothly this year.
“A lot of people have worked together differently than in the past,” he said. “The process has been transparent, productive and effective.”
In order to meet the figure targeted by selectmen, the School Committee trimmed approximately $372,000 from the proposed capital budget, including eliminating a surveillance system for the middle school and postponing some building maintenance projects.
In addition, they used salary adjustments, unused funds from last year’s capital budget, a reduction in special education tuition costs, the elimination of 11 teaching assistant positions and the reintroduction of student parking fees at the new high school once the parking lot is complete next winter, to hit selectmen’s targeted budget figure.
There has been no student parking available during the past two years of construction of the new high school set to open at the end of this month.
Despite making those moves, the committee was also able to add some programs including a math intervention specialist, current events elective and girls volleyball and a wrestling team at the middle school. A junior varsity golf team and an additional ski coach were added at the high school along with an additional section of AP computer programming, an advisory block director and two introduction to Spanish I/II sections to accommodate students who were unable to take a language class at the middle school but need the requirement for college admission.
And at the elementary schools, the committee was able to include in the proposed budget a 1.5 full time equivalent literacy specialist, which Littlefield described as “a basic service, not an enhancement.”
After a tumultuous year for the schools, which included controversies surrounding more than $150,000 in outstanding lunch bills, a review of the business department showing sloppy and outdated accounting practices, health violations at school cafeterias and a school custodian charged with stealing computers and silver from the middle school, Littlefield said she is relieved to not have to ask voters for an override to maintain school programs.