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Superintendent Marano Presents Challenging FY21 Budget

Feb 23, 2020 03:37PM ● By Pamela Johnson

Bellingham School Superintendent Peter Marano

story & photo by Amy Bartelloni, Contributing Writer

    The budget process for the FY21 school year has begun, and the word from Superintendent Peter Marano is that it’s “challenging.”  Educators and parents packed the January 21st meeting, eager to hear what the school department plans for next year and how they may address a potential budget shortfall. Marano presented the School Committee a proposed budget with a 9.58% increase over last year, laying out new requests for supplies and positions by school.
    
    The meeting began with an update from Tim Farmer, who’s coordinating the district’s strategic plan process. He presented an early draft of the document, which reflects what Superintendent Marano believes the students, schools, and district need in order to move forward. The 23-member committee proposed a memorable mission statement of “Dream, Achieve, Succeed” and identified five core values (academic excellence, communication, compassion, respect, and safety). The district’s “pillars of success” (academic excellence, communication, culture & climate, social & emotional well-being, and technology use & implementation) are each followed up with strategic goals and suggested actions. Marano used this plan to segue into next year’s budget presentation.

    “Our principals and directors have done a tremendous job putting together a budget that they feel really drives the areas we need to improve upon but also provides more opportunities for our students to grow and develop,” Marano began. In his presentation to the School Committee, he articulated the building-based needs and positions that each principal is asking for and the importance of each. He stressed that the budget was based on balancing those needs with fiscal responsibility, but in the end, he sees the requests as needs versus wants. “These are positions and budgetary requests that we think have meaning,” he stressed.

“One of our goals is for students to have access to a rigorous curriculum and programs that further their academic potential,” he told the committee. Every request is aligned to the existing strategic plan, addressing the following items specifically:
  • Define, support, and monitor sound instructional practices for all lessons in all classrooms.
  • Develop effective student support teams to meet the academic, social, emotional, behavioral, and safety needs of all students.
  • Support and increase inclusive learning environments that promote shared responsibility for all students.

SUPPLIES REQUESTED

He presented supply requests for each school, as summarized below:

STALL BROOK
$12,000 for purchase of updated social studies curriculum to reflect changes in the framework, increase in general supply line for toner and copier supplies, and materials to implement the science curriculum. Marano noted that one of these lines was cut last year for budget purposes and they’d like to bring that back to what it had been in previous years.

DIPIETRO
$6,000 for the purchase of updated social studies curriculum materials to reflect changes in the framework, and purchase of materials to implement science curriculum.


BELLINGHAM MEMORIAL SCHOOL
$29,000 to purchase a new math curriculum for grades 6 and 7.

BELLINGHAM HIGH SCHOOL
Reduction of $10,000 as funds were shifted to science to increase Project Lead the Way courses (a program that provides courses and curriculum in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, known as STEM, area, including adding a biomedical course). This includes increases in social studies lines to purchase materials for new frameworks and an increase in fine arts and general supply lines.

Chairman Mike Reed asked Marano to explain why it’s important to the school to have engineering and biomedical courses, which he was happy to do.

“Those [STEM-based] courses are critical for our students,” he noted. “A majority of occupations or fields that are out there for kids to move toward are STEM related.” Exposure to such courses helps students to decide what they want to major in in college, he explained, and provides them with high-level curriculum to support their growth. He hopes to introduce more computer science, cyber security, robotics, and electronics design courses.

National Honor Society advisor Amy Remy also spoke of the importance of STEM classes, telling the committee that these skills are what businesses are asking for in graduates. She continued to say it’s important to train students to be ready for work, even if they don’t choose to go to college, and noted that students will never know if they’re interested in such topics if they’re not exposed to them. Chairman Reed added that diverse academic opportunity is important as students consider their choices in schools.

PERSONNEL REQUESTED

Marano then presented position requests as follows:

STALL BROOK
$25,000 for an additional Instructional Learning Assistant (ILA) to support kindergarten staff that are the only educators in the classroom. “This will help provide academics in small group settings while not having students unsupervised in other parts of the room,” Marano explained.

DIPIETRO
$25,000 also for an ILA for the same reasoning, and $61,000 for a Special Education teacher. “This position will allow for the development of a resource room for special ed students,” Marano explained, though the position is currently under review.

KEOUGH MEMORIAL ACADEMY (KMA)
$61,000 for a dual-certified math/special education teacher to provide additional math courses to be offered at KMA and support science courses that involve higher levels of math.

BELLINGHAM MEMORIAL SCHOOL (BMS)
$61,000 for a foreign language teacher, allowing students in grades 6 and 7 to begin an introductory level of foreign language. Offered many years ago at the elementary level, these positions were cut for budgetary reasons. Principal Cutler would like to reestablish that at the middle school level. Marano read from recent studies indicating that students who participate in early foreign language are more prepared for their target language in high school and demonstrate a higher level of motivation in that study.

BELLINGHAM MEMORIAL SCHOOL
$61,000 for a school counselor. “Currently there are 2 counselors,” Marano explained. “With an increase in mental health and SEL (social and emotional learning), concerns that require additional counseling services, this position will allow for the creation of a therapeutic support classroom that will decrease the need for out-of-district placements.” There was much discussion on the costs of out-of-district placements and potential savings if those students could be educated inside the district.

“The typical tuition for a student at the middle school level to access a therapeutic program outside of the public school within a collaborative setting is approximately $50, 000.” Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Rachel Lawrence explained that this number does not reflect transportation costs that could range from $90 to over $200 a day. “If the collaborative is not able to program for a particular student requiring therapeutic needs and you have to move to a therapeutic day school, that tuition can go up over $100,000 a year.”

Marano noted that their goal is to develop an appropriate program at BMS and BHS to support those students within our schools.

BELLINGHAM MEMORIAL SCHOOL
$61,000 for a Media Specialist (for the library) to allow for the support and development of literacy and research skills and digital competencies. It also allows for the creation of what’s known as a MakerSpace in the library, allowing for the enhancement of technology skills and construction.

BELLINGHAM HIGH SCHOOL
$61,000 for a Special Education Teacher for the SEL Classroom to support students who were before dysregulated throughout the day and therefore have difficulty accessing the curriculum, the goal being to increase student academic performance while at the same time building students’ resilience for daily life.

BELLINGHAM HIGH SCHOOL
$61,000 for an Adjustment Counselor for the SEL classroom to provide group and individual counseling for students in the SEL classroom in order to support students when they become dysregulated, and try to prevent disciplinary infractions by teaching students coping skills, increasing engagement in schools, and providing parents with resources to support their children.
BELLINGHAM HIGH SCHOOL
$61,000 for a Fine Arts Teacher to allow for the development of additional fine arts courses that students request on a consistent basis. The position would provide 100-125 students additional spaces for arts per semester. “Our students really enjoy taking fine arts classes,” Marano said, and they regularly have to turn away 175-220 students a year for traditional arts, graphic design, photography, and 3D animation classes; and proficiency in at least one fine art is required for graduation standards.

Department requests were proposed as follows:
TECHNOLOGY
$3,759 reduction, but Marano noted the great strides already made. “Currently in grades 8 and 9, we have a 1:1 model (1 Chromebook laptop per student),” he said. “Our elementary and middle schools currently have a cart model where kids and teachers have access to Chromebooks.” They want to add additional carts in each school, and goals for the next budget cycle include providing grades 10-12 with the devices, along with continuing infrastructure upgrades (using resources and grants), improving the student intern program, upgrading WiFi in the BHS auditorium and cafeteria, and initiating a district-wide printer/copier program to reduce toner use and renew the first lease program at KMS.

MAINTENANCE
$47,127 for custodial supplies and ground maintenance at Stall Brook, BHS, and BMS. This would add carpeting at Stall Brook, an expense put off for years because of budget issues, and also address paving in some areas.

ATHLETICS
$60,855 for equipment replacement and BMS sports. “Mr. Cutler presented a very nice argument as to why adding some sports at the Memorial School is important,” Marano said, “Not only does it build the team aspect of the Memorial School, but it also builds more excitement for our students.”

CURRICULUM
$18,107 for an increase in supplies and stipend totals.

TRANSPORTATION
$291,498 for an increase in contractual obligations and additional students in out-of-district placements.

SPECIAL EDUCATION
$878,553 for an increase in out-of-district placements, tuition, medical services and contracted services. This reflects additional students moving into the district that require out-of-district placement. Marano noted that this number is fluid, since it depends on students moving in and out of the district.

SPECIAL EDUCATION
$56,000 for two ABA technicians at the elementary and secondary levels, which is also fluid depending on enrollment.

DISTRICT
$1,165,363 for contractual obligations, vocational tuition increase, and contracted services.

Marano discussed some things the district is doing to offset these costs. “Last year, we had close to $1.4 million in grants,” he said, though not all of them are repetitive. Every year they’re cautious because state grants, such as Title 1 (which received $183,151 last year), are not guaranteed, and in fact there is an indication that the district may lose some of that money. He touched on revolving accounts, which he described as “separate accounts outside the operating budget that receive funds, whether it’s from a different school district as school choice, or tuition from another district like Keough Memorial, or through our rental program.” They’re typically tied to specific uses, for example if the revolving account is dedicated to athletics, it has to be used for athletics, though there is some discretion in the school choice fund, which is used for positions to offset budget reductions. These accounts are allowed to have a balance at the end of the year to carry over, while the operating budget can’t. He cautioned not letting those accounts go too low, since the school-choice revolving fund supports four positions and would take some time to build back up.

Total increases were proposed as follows: $47,039 for schools; $47,000 for maintenance; $18,107 for curriculum; $60,855 for athletics; $878,553 for special education; $1,054,643 for districts; $536,785 for new positions; and $291,498 for transportation (which is a line item outside the school’s operating budget and paid through the town. It’s included to reflect the true cost of educating a student in Bellingham). The budget also reflects a decrease of $3,759 in technology and totals a $1,988,329 (7.02%) increase over last year’s budget before including the new position requests, which becomes a $2,525,114 (9.58%) increase including the new positions.

Marano presented historical data for perspective. Over the last three years, the school budget has increased between 2% and 4% per year (last year’s 2.33% increase reflected a difficult budget owing to an unanticipated $1,000,000 cost because of an increase in charter school attendance). Salaries make up the bulk of the school department’s proposed budget at $22,603,740 (of $31,769,554 total, roughly 71% including transportation costs and 78% leaving out transportation).

“I don’t think that what was requested, whether it was supplies or positions, are wish lists,” Marano finished. If the district can’t meet these obligations, he warned that the town would need to have difficult conversations about reductions to meet the district’s existing contractual obligations. Those decisions haven’t been made, but the administrative team is looking at options. Chairman Mike Reed praised the administrations’ hard work to ensure that these requests are needs and not wants.

“We recognize our fiscal responsibility as committee members to try to deliver a budget, with the help of Mr. Marano and his administrative team, that can help drive us forward and also be fiscally responsible,” Reed commented.

The Committee took a step back to explain the school’s role in the town’s overall budget. “Each year, the town has to put together its entire budget in conjunction with all the departments (police, fire, DPW),” Reed explained, noting that the school budget reflects a big piece of that. “Each year, the town, pursuant to Massachusetts law Chapter 2 1/2, is required to limit the amount of taxation it can grow by, which creates a fixed amount of money that the town can try to grow revenue by.” Other revenue opportunities for the town include new growth, and Town CFO Mary MacKinnon stepped in to say that that number is about $1.6 million this year, an amount that has to be split among town departments. While the school department has received a good share of new growth in past years, the increase in the proposed school budget was more than all new growth funds combined, a concern and challenge for the School Committee. They’ll make a decision, based on the budget projected, whether to move forward and see if the community will support overriding the tax increase limitation set by Proposition 2-1/2.  This would require the support of the Selectmen, and then the town at a special election.

The message Reed hopes to send with the meeting was that they recognize there are areas of need and are trying to address them, and they’ve built a budget to do that, specifically addressing some of the things Marano sees as needs in the district. “We want to try to accomplish those,” Reed said, “and unfortunately, to do that, to drive forward, costs money.” He pointed out that the average amount that the town spends per pupil is approximately $900-$1000 lower than the state average (at $15,581.44 according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website, found online at www.doe.mass.edu, as opposed to $16,495 state average).

Reed cautioned that looking at a 9% increase in the school budget could be deceptive. “You have to look at where you started,” he said. “If you’re already low, another 10% doesn’t necessarily mean you’re high. It just means you’re going the right way.”

“We take our fiduciary responsibility very seriously,” Marano finished. “Whatever allotment of money we have, we try to stretch it as much as we can. We’ve done a very good job in my 5 years as Superintendent, living within the means of our budget, spending money appropriately and toward areas that will help drive improvement for our students, and we will continue to do that.” He noted comments from surveys and focus groups over his 20 years in the Bellingham school system that our schools are just okay. “I do feel like that’s been a sentiment for a long time, and we want to be better. Yes, we do need to live within budgetary restraints, but we should also push to be better. In this day and age of education, just being okay isn’t enough.”

The issue is far from decided. The School Committee met on Tuesday, February 4th, to decide on moving forward. The Board Selectmen had a budget workshop scheduled for February 22, and Town CFO Mary MacKinnon will present an overview of where we are as a town, including what resources we have available and where we have dedicated those resources based on meetings with town departments. Parents and community members are welcome at this meeting.

More information about future meetings, as well as the proposed budget presentation, can be found on the Bellingham Public Schools website at www.bellinghamk12.org.

 

 

 

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