School Budget Discussed at April 8 Committee Meeting
Apr 28, 2014 11:04AM ● Published by Pamela Johnson
The Bellingham School Committee met in three public sessions in early April to work with the recommendations from the budget support subcommittee after their several months of open meetings to present a working budget for Fiscal Year 2015 (July 1, 2014--June 30, 2015). After all of the budget requests and teacher salary increases as well as additional costs to run the buildings and the programs were coordinated, the budget numbers exceeded the amount of funding expected to be recommended by the Finance Committee by close to $3 million, according to Superintendent Edward Fleury.
Fleury noted that the majority of the new spending, especially in new staff positions, stems from increases and new demands within the Special Education Department. Selectman and Budget Support Committee member Jerry Mayhew noted that the state and federal departments of education are great at mandating new policies and programs that school districts are required to follow but not so great at providing the funding. Therefore, the onus falls upon the local governments to come up with the money. Mayhew noted that the state is “not even close” with reimbursing local communities for all the programs they now require.
School Committee Chairman and Budget Support Committee member Daniel Ranieri said that the district is required to and will service the needs of Special Education students. Therefore, money previously directed to other services needs to be redirected to the SPED budget and additional salaries. For example the district will hire five new Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Technicians to work in that department as one-to-one aides and case managers for students with special needs such as autism, Down syndrome or behavioral disabilities. These new positions will cost the district an additional $180,000.
The school administrators were then asked to redistribute existing staff and to prioritize the requests for new staff positions. According to Fleury, they determined there were five proposed positions that they could not live without. These are a .5 team chair at the middle school, a .4 Occupational Therapist, a Speech and Language Pathologist (the last two positions are currently contracted out at a significant cost to the district), the five new ABA technicians, and an adjustment counselor.
Ranieri noted that last year the school budget included balances from various revolving accounts that were then used up and not available for this year. He said that this year the town was able to similarly use revolving account balances, which helped enable the $1,268, 201 (6.04%) increase over last year’s budget bottom line. However, of this increase in town funding, $760,000 is already earmarked for SPED staff and programs. Therefore, the proposed budget is still over $1 million more than the available amount from the town.
Ranieri also emphasized that using the balances in these revolving accounts is a one-time fix and that this money will not be available to support these positions in future years. Therefore, the district will face the same budget issues next year. He said that 82% of the school budget accounts for all staff salaries (BTA, AFSME and non-union members), another 6.91% is non-staff SPED costs, 3.5% is utilities, 3.13% is non-staff maintenance costs, 1.8% is other miscellaneous costs, 1.3% is textbooks and supplies, 0.85% is technology, and 0.61% is professional development. Therefore, with yearly contractual salary increases, school costs rise each year without adding any additional staff or programs.
Ranieri said, “The way we fund education is so far out of whack and not sustainable from year to year. However, the system can’t be changed at the local level.” This is because the town collects only a finite number of tax dollars and can’t give out what it does not have. Ranieri said that people need to appeal to the state for change.
Residents spoke at the April 8 meeting to express concerns over cutting support services, which had been proposed, and additionally, consolidating classes within grades, meaning larger class sizes. Several teachers have been notified that their positions may be eliminated if the district cuts down support programs such as Reading Recovery.
One parent explained that her son is currently in a first-grade class with 16 students at Stall Brook School and receives reading services. However, if his class size goes up to 24 in second grade and his reading services are cut, he may decline academically.
School Budget Support Committee member Mark Flannery noted that the committee had to make hard choices and that when the final budget is adopted, there will be line items that some people may not be happy about. He said that most of the additional funding in the budget is coming from the town, which will not be sustainable in the future. Therefore, as a community we will be forced to make some hard choices about keeping open school buildings such as Clara Macy Elementary School and the Paul J. Primavera (PJP) Center.
Macy teacher Edie Naylor explained that her concern is that they have to cut teachers because more students in the upper grades are moving out of the district to vocational/technical, special or private high schools. Therefore, she pointed out that we need to maintain our programs, so that students are enticed to stay in the district. She also noted that when we talk about the town giving the school district funding, "We--the residents--are the town. We pay the taxes. These are our children we are educating."
Additionally, at the April 8 meeting, the School Committee brought in two groups of students for commendations. The Committee first congratulated the BHS girls varsity basketball team for winning the Central Massachusetts Championship and advancing to the state semi-finals. The team will be added to the TVL Small School Championship banner in the gym along with getting a Central Section Championship banner and will have a team plaque hanging at the Keogh Building. The team will also march in the Memorial Day parade.
The School Committee also recognized BHS Seniors Dan Schmidt and Derek Robbie for their work in establishing a wheelchair soccer program at the school. They explained that they researched the sport and had much of the equipment donated. Games will be played during the school day so that other students can watch.