School budget forums to be held this week

Above: Residents attending an information session on the school budget last year

In this tough budget year, much of the town’s fiscal attention has turned toward the schools. With somewhere in the neighborhood of 67% of taxpayer dollars going to fund the K-8, Algonquin, and Assabet budgets, town officials have said it will be up to the schools to keep the tax burden low this year.

At their meeting last week, Selectmen approved a $46M budget that would require a 4.5 percent tax increase next year. Selectmen said they would like to lower the increase to 2 percent, but doing so would require the schools to cut an additional $570K.

“We’re asking the schools to go back to drawing board and make more cuts,” Selectman John Rooney said.

For his part, Superintendent Charles Gobron said there’s little in the budget left to trim. Earlier this month the K-8 School Committee approved a $16.7M budget that eliminated $420K in personnel and other costs, for a total increase of 2.01% over last year’s budget.

“I think everybody needs to understand the bare bones situation we’re in,” K-8 School Committee member Kathleen Harragan Polutchko said. “If you ask us for any more cuts, it really is going to have to come out of personnel, and I just think that is not where we want to go.”

Ultimately the decision will be up to voters at Town Meeting next month. Residents will have a chance to discuss the K-8 and Algonquin budgets and ask questions at several open forums this week hosted by Gobron. Here are the dates and times — all are welcome to attend.

Wednesday, March 23 @ 12:00 pm
Senior Center, 9 Cordaville Road
Superintendent Gobron will attend a previously-scheduled senior lunch at 11:30. A presentation on the budgets will begin at 12:00 pm.

Thursday, March 24 @ 9:00 am
Woodward School Cafeteria

Thursday, March 24 @ 7:00 pm
Woodward School Cafeteria

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John Butler
12 years ago

I doubt if the School Committee developed a budget for the municipal departments it could be less useful than the Selectmen’s budget for the schools. Presumably, this is why State law gives the Selectmen no authority whatsoever over school budgets. Compared to last year the Selectmen’s budgets ask for an unsupportable combined municipal increase of 5.9% and a cut, compared to last year, of minus 0.8% for the K8 schools (including benefits), with an increase of 1.1% for schools, when including all the regional school systems and K8. Does that seem fair? If you don’t think so, you better go to Town Meeting to vote.

Unfortunately, no one is likely to be happy this year. Municipal is probably going to get less than it wants, and the School Committee will have to settle for less as well. Meanwhile taxpayers will have to steel themselves against emotional pleas and fear mongering from every direction. Even with this, taxes may go up again. But, we should be, and can be, supporting a balanced approach.

Al Hamilton
12 years ago

The School Committees could bolster their positions (and get my vote) if they took a strong, proactive lead in controlling labor costs.

Lets be clear about what, for example, the K-8 schools are asking for. More money for less service. The K-8 school population has been declining since 2004 but every year we are asked to pay more. The reason is the relentless, uncontrolled increases in labor costs.

So, if our elected representatives want to convince us that there is nothing left to cut they should report to Town Meeting that they have approved a new contract that calls for at least 2 years of salary freeze and a health insurance co pay that is comparable to the rest of our public employees 25%. Otherwise, their words will ring hollow and they will have continued to saddle us with unsustainable costs and will be doing real damage to the education of our children.

12 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Al, you’ve probably posted this before, but do you have any idea how much making that change would save this year?

Al Hamilton
12 years ago
Reply to  Resident

I do not have exact data for negotiating reasons (which I agree with) the School Committees have not publicly said how much they have budgeted for increases. But, I can make a rough estimate

The k-8 school budget is about 16.7 million (exclusive of benefits). The vast majority of this is labor costs. I believe a reasonable guess is 3/4. So that would give a labor cost (exclusive of benefits) of about $12 million. A 1% increase = $120k = 2 or 3 teachers.

On the benefits side the k-8 budget last year was about $3.0 million. If the teachers picked up another 5% that would be $150k or another 3 teachers.

I have no reason to believe that the Administration is considering pay freezes. I believe they are trying to move the teachers benefit contribution up from 20%.

So, the School Committees have a real challenge.

School labor costs represents about 1/2 of the total town operating budget. If the school committees cannot control labor costs in the next contract then the town will be saddled with and unsustainable cost structure where we will continue to reduce school staff and hurt education in order to support fewer and fewer school employees.

It is time for the School Committees to set the stage for continued quality eduction by taking a tough stance on controlling labor costs so we can provide our children with a quality education we can afford.

John Butler
12 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

On the substance of the above, I’d have to agree with Al, adding only that there is no justification for any increased compensation costs on the municipal side either. I don’t think we should hear about steps, lanes, grade changes or any other justification for paying more per unit of labor. We need a freeze on labor costs. Nothing short of going to compulsory arbitration, and losing, would justify increasing compensation costs. Note that I am not anti-union. I am not anti-tax. But it is time for elected officials to accept some level of stress, if need be, and do everything in their power to stop labor cost increases for a 2-3 year period.

Al Hamilton
12 years ago
Reply to  John Butler

I certainly agree with John. My understanding is that Town Meeting will get to vote on any municipal contract and if those contracts contain raises then we should vote NO. On the other hand my understanding is that Town Meeting does not get to vote on School labor contracts. That is under the exclusive control of the School Committees.

Assuming I am correct and considering that the School labor contracts represent something on the order half our operating budget it is appropriate to have a laser focus on this issue.

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