Friday, May 18, 2001
A confused public questions, then approves, school budget requests
Confusion was the dominant theme of a free-wheeling discussion on Town Meeting floor, as voters tried to understand a maze of choices for appropriations for the Carlisle Public Schools (CPS), three for Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS), and two separate override questions incorporating all five choices. Voters questioned why increases, even within the balanced 2-1/2% budget, were so much higher than inflation or enrollment increases. Voters also wanted to know what the final budget cuts might mean for school programs. But beyond these more substantive issues the voting process itself, both at Town Meeting and the ballot box, seemed to puzzle voters.
The entire process to approve budgets for the schools seemed particularly perplexing this year, as voters puzzled over the possible outcomes that might result from various combinations or sequences of approval or disapproval of Town Meeting articles and Carlisle and Concord ballot questions. "I wish I had a flow chart," one voter was heard to remark outside the auditorium.
Concord and Carlisle harmony
Lurking in the background was concern about extended wrangling with the town of Concord over the high school budget, with several voters looking for guidance on how Monday night's vote might affect the chances for an eventual joint Town Meeting, should the two towns not agree on a high school budget.
Clyde Kessel of Curve St. asked for clarification about the outcome if the two towns approve different budget levels. Would it "grease the wheels," he asked, if Carlisle passed the higher budget level (Question1A) which is the level appropriated by the Concord Town Meeting?
If after the elections the two towns are not "in harmony," Platt and Fitzgerald explained that the Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee (CCRSC) can:
· adopt a total budget at the lower level approved by either town,
· ask the town approving the lower amount to reconsider the higher level, or
· convene a joint Town Meeting.
Changing the process in midstream
The procedure for organizing the discussion and for voting also proved malleable, as moderator Sarah Brophy responded to the complexity of the choices by modifying plans initially intended to streamline budget discussions.
Even the moderator herself admitted to being "as confused as the audience" as selectman Doug Stevenson suggested voting the CPS and CCHS budgets separately at Town Meeting rather than as the bundles (questions 1A and 1B) to be presented to voters at town election.
Trying to clarify how such a process might work, FinCom chair Simon Platt enumerated the five separate votes that would be possible: for CPS, two votes, one for no-override and one for the $150,000 override; for CCHS, three votes, one for no-override, the second for $108,733 override (question 1B) and the third for an additional $41,324 override (question 1A).
Chair of the board of selectmen Michael Fitzgerald suggested three separate votes: for general government and each school separately. After several conferences with town counsel Paul DeRensis, Brophy, who said she was "more comfortable in going from the outside and seeing what passes" started the votes at $16,540,062, the highest level override (the amount that would be funded by ballot question 1A). Following the affirmative vote for this level, Brophy explained that, it was necessary to vote on the lower levels as well, in case that ballot question did not pass. Both lower levels passed easily.
What's increase, what's inflation?
Several voters questioned why the proposed school budgets would rise more than increases in the town population or inflation. Dan Holzman of Blaisdell Drive, noting that "the town's population has not increased that much," also questioned the difference between the 11% increase for K-8 and the 19% increase for the high school.
Paul Morrison, speaking for the CPS, noted that cost increases are always above the rate of enrollment increases, about 5% a year in recent years, he said. The pressure of enrollment increases is compounded by inflation (about 3%) each year. Then, certain uncontrollable itemslegal costs, special education and other mandated services, utility costscan quickly drive budgets higher, much more rapidly than inflation, he added. A "level service" budget for the CPS will cost 10.48% more than last year, according to Morrison.
More of the pie at CCHS
Cindy Nock, newly "anointed" chair of the Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee, described the high school's "mission to engage every student in learning and at least one co-curricular (extracurricular) activity." She and Platt both explained that part of what drives increases in the town's assessment for the high school is that the number of Carlisle students next year will increase more than the number from Concord. This will increase Carlisle's "assessment ratio," the proportion of the district budget paid by the town.
The town of Carlisle will pay for more of the pie, and the pie will be bigger at the high school next year. There will be an increase of 10.8% in the total regional budget, which Nock reviewed: 10.9% for "regular education", 22.8% more for special education, 8.1% for administration, 6.4% for operations and 3.8% for fixed costs.
Wayne Davis of Concord Street asked what would be provided by the additional amounts of $108,753 or $150,057 allowed by the override questions 1B and 1A. Nock listed the items that would be eliminated if question 1A is not approved and only the 1B passes, including part of the salary for an intervention/prevention counselor supporting efforts to "lessen the risk of youth violence."
Platt reminded voters that since Carlisle pays about 25% of the regional budget, for every dollar Carlisle doesn't pass the high school budget must be cut by $4. Thus, a reduction of just under $42,000 in Carlisle's assessment translates to over $150,000 in reductions in the total budget.
The least pain
Responding to a question from Steve Opolski of Concord Street about how the school committee decided to cut "something that's working well and presumably important," Nock added that the school committee tried to find cuts with "the least amount of pain." Certain contractual issues could mean increased legal costs, and the teachers' contract also limits what can be cut. At the "levy limit" (if no overrides pass), the school committee would have to drastically reduce extracurricular and athletic activities, she noted.
In response to a question from Lisa Jensen-Fellows of Judy Farm Road, Platt described the FinCom's priorities in developing their budget recommendations. First, the tax rate; second, the pain that reducing budget requests would cause; and third, their interest in "moderating" the base levy and budget foundation for future years. The FinCom believed that cutting $400,000 from the budget (required if question 1B does not pass) is "too harsh" and cutting $200,000 (required if question 1A does not pass) is "not as hurtful."
Platt also noted that neither FinCom vote was unanimous, in contrast to the board of selectmen, who voted unanimously to support the override for the Carlisle public schools, according to Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald added that a majority of selectmen voted to support question 1B for CCHS, and that only one selectmen had supported question 1A.
Nock said that the per capita cost to educate a student at CCHS, under the proposed 1A budget, would be $10,567 next year, and at the Carlisle Public School, $8,305 per student.
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