Next Phase Budget

What About Next Year

 

I have consistently described our submitted budget for next school year “dire”—not so much because we have to cut a huge number of staff positions or exercise a reduction-in-force.  Rather, the budget we have drafted, the Available Revenue Budget, is “dire” because it does not provide sufficient funds to maintain the programming and staffing currently in place.  By implication, then, the Available Revenue Budget, representing an increase of 2.65% over current funds, does not even allow us to meet the needs of what may be a student enrollment increase as big as 103 if the predictions of our most recent enrollment study by the New England School Development Council prove true.

 

I have emphasized that the budget we have had to submit as of this date does not meet what we would describe as True Level Service requirements—that is, what we know we need to do to meet present and projected student needs.  However, the proposed budget is not a cause for fear or panic.  We can live with what we have projected if we have to.  The one major unpredictable factor right now is what the state Chapter 70 funding will be, and we are not likely to have much of a hint of what that might be for Belmont until later in April.  Nonetheless, we must at present plan on how to live with only a 2.65% increase when contractual salary obligations alone require for next year an increase of 3.9%.

 

To meet the requirements of the tight budget, we have included so-called one-time-only funds like credits from the LABBB collaborative, the Town’s allocation from cash reserves, a draw-down of the special education Circuit Breaker funds, and a reallocation from the Town’s capital budget funds.  We had hoped to support the new elementary math series from operating funds.  Instead, we are asking to use almost $60,000 from a donation account the Town has and to supplement that one-time funding with support from the Foundation for Belmont Education to ensure implementation of the new program.  The problem with using these one-time-only funds is that once used, they are gone; there is no predictable replenishment of the funds.

 

After extensive discussions from January to the present with the Town Administrator, Board of Selectmen, and School Committee Subcommittee on Finance, after all the available revenue had been determined, and after all the one-time additional allocations were figured in, we were still about $425,000 short of a balanced, bare-bones budget.  To close that gap we anticipate having to reduce professional positions by 7.75.  The normal transition within staff—retirements, resignations, non-renewals—usually consists of 20 to 30 individuals each year.  That turnover is the reason we do not expect to issue among the present professional staff reductions-in-force.  However, to meet the increasing number of students in the elementary grades, we are planning to reduce the number of grade-level aides to afford the staffing for a necessary additional second grade class at the Wellington. Also, we are reviewing possibilities for rescheduling and reformatting some classes and grades and will be conferring with the Belmont Education Association since such changes are matters for impact bargaining.

 

Although we still have not determined specific positions to eliminate, and will not do so until much later this spring, we have to look at options at Belmont High School.  Although we do not wish to see larger classes at the high school or reduce the number of course offerings, if the current available funding does not increase, we will have to cut high school classes.

 

While we may hold out for some improvement once we know what the state’s actual Chapter 70 funding for Belmont is likely to be, next year will certainly be a constrained one fiscally.  What worries us even more are prospects for fiscal year 2015 and the school year that begins September 2014.  In my judgment, both the Town and schools will be at rope’s end without a voter-approved override of Proposition 2.5.

 

While this news is not good—the budget for fiscal year 2014 is “dire”—it could be worse.  We will certainly be providing staff updates about the budget and its prospects for the next school year and beyond as the weeks progress.  The School Committee is holding public meetings about the budget on April 1, 7:30 pm, the Wellington Community Room, and on April 4, 9:00 am, the Board of Selectmen’s Chamber.  The School Committee will formally vote to approve a budget submission on April 23.  Even then there will be additional meetings and forums to discuss the budget and—we might hope—make improving adjustments between then and the Town Meeting on budget, currently scheduled for June 3.

 

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The Budget Status

The budget planning and approval process edges its way to the Belmont Town Meeting on June 3.  The School Department has submitted its current proposal to the Board of Selectmen and Warrant Committee, and the Department is currently in the middle of responding through the School Committee’s Subcommittee on Finance to the questions generated by the Warrant Committee’s Subcommittee on Education.  We have been meeting jointly with the subcommittees and administration.

At present the budget anticipates balancing programs to current available funds by cutting 7.75 professional positions.  The cuts would be in services as well as staff since having fewer professionals implies larger class sizes and an inability to add to some requested positions like counselors or tutors.  Yet, the current proposed budget is just that—proposed.  State funding could change the picture by providing increased available revenue. 

There will be two public forums in early April so that the public can comment on the budget proposals.  The first forum will be 7:30 pm, April 1, the Community Room of the Wellington School.  The second forum will be 9:00 am, April 4, the Board of Selectmen’s chamber.  The School Committee will take a formal vote to approve a budget submission at its regular meeting April 23 (Shakespeare’s birthday!), Chenery Large Community Room, 7:30 pm.

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Does Sequestration Matter?

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.

 

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To Cancel or Not to Cancel!

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.

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Budget-Making

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).

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Loss of a Friend

January 22: The death of a friend is always an unfathomable loss, especially when the friend would seem by all expectations to have many more years ahead and many more contributions to make to the common good. Monday morning I sent the staff of the Belmont Public Schools the following message:

“With deepest sorrow I must announce the death of School Committee member Dan Scharfman. Sunday night Dan succumbed to the effects of the heart attack he had suffered last week. Dan was deeply devoted to the Town of Belmont and especially to the students of the Belmont Public Schools. The loss of his leadership is immense, as is the loss of his friendship and counsel. Our sympathies and condolences go to his wife Merle Kummer, his children Rachel and Jacob, and his extended family. Just as Dan loved the community of Belmont and devoted so much attention to its well-being, the community of Belmont loved Dan, his vision, his gift of humor, his wisdom.”

To me personally Dan had become a close friend in the common goal of envisioning excellence for public education. He was an imaginative innovator, friendly critic, and personal counselor. He was the kind of intelligent and devoted school committee member every school superintendent should hope to have as a partner. During my interview to become interim superintendent in Belmont, one of my most memorable conversations centered upon Dan’s probing question about my philosophy of education. We engaged in a discussion deeply informed by his own training as a classicist and his knowledge about the foundations of civic responsibility for teaching the young. To lose Dan now when envisioning the future of public education is so critical seems unfair. Yet, as a community we owe Dan’s memory our rededication to his high aspirations for the commonweal.

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Renovating and Expanding BHS

January 14, 2013: Nine years ago (October 2004) the Town of Belmont submitted to the Massachusetts School Building Authority a “Master Plan and Feasibility Study for Renovations to Belmont High School.” That plan envisioned a phased but single-project renovation to the high school, a building opened as a new facility in 1971. After the reorganization of the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), the Town submitted an addendum to the plan calling for the addition of a wing devoted to the sciences. Each year since October 2004 the Town has revised and updated its Statement of Interest. Following an initial approval of a project plan by MSBA, a Town then authorizes a project feasibility study in accord with MSBA guidelines; and if all goes well, including a vote by the Town for a capital debt exclusion, then the project gets underway with somewhat less than a third of the cost borne by the Commonwealth.

The case for renovating and expanding Belmont High School is compelling. While the building remains safe, the auditorium has torn and squeaking seats that cannot be replaced without major renovation to the floor and room. The classrooms are outdated, and the science rooms suffer from a lack of preparation space or adequate work tables. The floor of the field house needs to be replaced. While informational technology has become a part of general operations, the building does not support or sustain the kind of wiring and infrastructure necessary for teaching and learning in the 21st century. The location of departmental offices isolates teachers from one another and complicates efforts to build integrated cross-disciplinary curricula. Most structural systems, including boilers and water heaters, are out-of-date.

Working with a small advisory group consisting of high school personnel, former and present school committee members, and representatives of Town boards, the School Department is developing a new Statement of Interest to submit to MSBA against an April 10 deadline. The Statement requires approval by the Select Board, and a proposal will go before the Board in March. The recent NEASC (New England Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges) accreditation report, once finally drafted, will place the high school on “Warning” because of the condition of the building. If all goes well, the Town should learn by late summer if the long wait to proceed with the project has a green light.

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