Friday, February 12, 1999
Minuteman: under budget, but new legislation threatens school's future
Superintendent Ron Fitzgerald and Carlisle representative Sandy Ford presented the Minuteman Regional High School budget to the finance committee on February 3. The good news was that Carlisle's assessment will be under budget; the bad news was that the impact of new legislation could mean the demise of the school and departure of the superintendent as early as this June.
The total school budget for FY00 is $13,348,966, an increase of only 1.7 percent over the previous year. Subtracting $6,206,271 in revenue yields a total of $7,142,695 to be divided among the 16 member towns.
Finance committee members nodded politely, waiting for Fitzgerald to get to the Carlisle assessment. The FinCom FY00 guideline for Minuteman is a three-percent increase to $122,918. "Based on a total of 6.12 full-time equivalent (FTE) students and a cost of $12,611 per student," said Fitzgerald, "the total assessment for Carlisle is $77,182."
Astonished members stared in disbelief at the final number, representing $45,736 under budget. "Personally, I'm skeptical. How safe is this number?" asked chair Charles Parker. "Pretty safe," replied Fitzgerald. "Numbers could change based on as yet unknown state decisions not anticipated until late February. They could go lower."
Dover had fewer FTE students (4.08), but was assessed $3,000 more than Carlisle because of four special education (SPED) students. "Carlisle's SPED count dropped from three to one," explained Fitzgerald. Arlington received the highest assessment, with 142 FTE students, of $2,208,925.
Impact of legislation
Minuteman has been operating under state fiscal procedures that, while not of the school's making, cause severe variations and inequities in charges to member towns. Last year, Rep. James Marzilli (D-Arlington) wrote legislation that allows Minuteman's member towns to reject spending more than 150 percent of the foundation budget. Under the Education Reform Act, the foundation is the state's calculation of the minimum cost for educating a student. Last year, Minuteman's spending was over 200 percent of the foundation; figures were not provided for the FY00 proposed budget. If six member towns decide to reject the budget, Fitzgerald will have to redo it.
Marzilli's legislation, Section 126 of the FY99 state budget, was proposed without the knowledge of the Minuteman School Committee and as an outside
portion of the state budget to avoid public hearings. The bill was slipped through in the annual rush of budget action. "Most legislators who are fair-minded would probably not have passed the bill if they knew the facts," asserted Fitzgerald. If member towns decide to cut Minuteman's assessment support to the minimum 150 percent level, it would mean a reduction of over $2.5 million in one year.
The trouble began about ten years ago when the 16 member towns were unable to send enough students to fill Minuteman to capacity. The school agreed to become a choice school, which allows students from outside districts to attend the school at a cost of $5,000, well below what it takes to educate them. Fitzgerald sees two widely disparate ways to address this problem. "Member towns uniting to insist on state correction of unfair policies such as the disgracefully low tuition level for choice students, or member towns simply cutting support to Minuteman to a level that will no longer support quality programs."
In reaction to this, on February 2, the Minuteman School Committee voted to phase out the choice program. "I'm not unhappy to see choice go," responded Parker. The phase-out was necessary because loss of choice represents a reduction of $637,411 in revenue that must be made up by increased recruiting and Chapter 74 (tuition) students. Such a reduction combined with the possible loss of $2.5 million would bring the school below the expenditure level of nearby academic regions such as Concord-Carlisle and Lincoln-Sudbury. Fitzgerald predicted that choice would be eliminated from Minuteman enrollment by 2004.
Impact of legislation
What would full implementation of Section 126 and the loss of over $2.5 million do to Minuteman? Fitzgerald sees the worst case scenario in three phases. Phase I would save $760,000 through elimination of all non-instruction and outside service, such as athletics, extra-curricular programs and equipment purchases. Phase II would eliminate the ninth grade saving $1.6 million. Phase III would save $380,000 by eliminating five majors.
Fitzgerald announced on February 2, "Obviously, this plan would not work because many of the humans to whom it would be applied would not want to participate in such a negative, destructive process." He concluded, "I offer you that caution, because if anything resembling this is pursued, I shall leave you on June 30, 1999. Working on destruction of the school is not one of my professional interests, since it would represent the opposite of serving youngsters properly."
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito