Does the proposed federal sequestration on Friday, March 1, have any consequence for Belmont? Indeed, it does. Here’s what the Office of the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education has issued:
“March 1 is the current deadline for Congress to act to avoid the automatic spending cuts under sequestration, although few will be surprised if the federal budget debate extends into spring and summer. If sequestration occurs, it has been suggested that federal K-12 education spending might be cut in the range of six percent. It is too early to tell how that would translate into individual district allotments for individual programs. Any cuts to education spending won’t have an impact until July 1 at the earliest. We urge distr4icts to take a conservative approach in estimating federal grant revenues as you continue your work on Fiscal Year 2014 budgets.”
In our current budget submission we took what we thought was a conservative position and assumed that federal grants would be level-funded. To cut an additional 6% or 7% from federal grants in a budget that already represents essentially a half-million-dollar cut in services is painful and difficult, especially for the various populations served by federal grants: students of special needs, students on free or reduced lunch, students whose primary language is other than English, and—in truth—all students because all benefit from the federal lunch program and the array of district-wide services supported by the federal entitlement programs.
The political logjam in Washington has direct, local consequences. Approximately $6 million of the school department’s budget comes from sources other than the general fund. Most of those sources are the various “entitlement” grants. A cut in real dollars of an additional $350,000 is certainly meaningful.
Whether or not to cancel school is a complex decision contingent on many factors. There are some superintendents who dread having to make the school/no school decision more than any other decisions they have to make (although, admittedly, I’m not one of them). The ultimate decision is never one made alone or without considerable help. Certainly, superintendents consult with counterparts in neighboring districts. However, the more important consultation is with other officers of the Town.
Last fall, for example, in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy, I joined all the Town department heads, the Town Administrator, and public safety officials for ongoing meetings under the Town Emergency Management Director’s, Leo Saidneway’s, chairmanship. We were apprised of the preparations for Hurricane Sandy, the needs of the various town departments, advice from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, predictions from NOAA’s Taunton center, and the directives from the Governor’s office. I canceled school for two days because trees and limbs were down throughout the town. While the Belmont emergency management team never directs me what to do, I’d be foolish to disregard their best advice. Even then, some questioned why we did not resume school by the second day.
For this current February 2013 blizzard, I’ve listened to what my Town colleagues have had to say and, again, had access to the best intelligence by means of Leo Saidneway’s good office. Nonetheless, after using my tracked snowblower to extricate my car from my house in Arlington Heights, I and my wife Sue drove Sunday afternoon through much of Belmont to discover how impacted the side streets and sidewalks were. DPW informed me that it would be impossible to clear all the sidewalks they clean before late afternoon Monday. The call to cancel was actually a fairly easy one to make, but one made only after consulting with the school department’s building and grounds crew and with the Town Administrator.
I always state publicly early in a school year that if the weather is bad and school is nonetheless in session, parents always have a right to keep their students at home. More often the complaints I receive are from stressed parents who need child care and become upset when they only have a few hours notice that schools are canceled. Important to note is that the majority of Belmont school personnel do not live in the town; and some come to work from considerable distances. For those reasons, I try to make a firm decision as soon as possible the afternoon or evening before so that our robo-calls and notices get to people with as much forewarning as possible. Ultimately, the decision to go or stay depends upon my best informed judgment about protecting the safety of our students and teachers. It is always a decision never guaranteed to please everyone.
February 4: The months of February through April are the budget-crunching days for any Massachusetts school system. Belmont is hardly unique in its perennial need to balance increasing service demands against ever limited financial resources. The school system is growing; we anticipate more than fifty new students next school year, if our growth projections are accurate. We seek to replace a twenty-year-old elementary mathematics program with a new series. We need to address existing issues about class size, particularly in our elementary and middle schools.
The Town of Belmont is heavily dependent upon local tax revenues, most of which derive from the single system property tax. There is little industrial or commercial base in Belmont and, therefore, little justification for a commercial tax rate. Right now, our bare-bones school budget for next school year is projected to grow slightly over 4%. The increased revenues available locally are at 1.9%. To balance the budget requires drawing down on “rainy day” reserves, and such draw-downs can only last a year or two before the reserve fund is depleted. Governor Patrick has proposed a significant increase in state aid, but doing so would require substantial increases in state revenue, i.e., higher taxes. Therefore, our preliminary budget will not take the Governor’s proposal into account; we will wait for the Legislature to act before we count additional revenue.
Ultimately, we will balance revenue and expenses. Our hope is that by the time of the Town Meeting budget session the first week of June, we can count on greater state aid to close our gap. In the long view, however, the Town of Belmont will need to consider whether the time has come to begin using the “O” word (Proposition 2 ½ Override).