Friday, December 14, 2001
Fear of recession dominates early negotiations on Carlisle School budget Ghosts of 1990 remind committee of what can happen when an override fails
Memories of the recession of the early '90s seemed to hover like ghosts over a December 5 meeting of the Carlisle Finance Committee (FinCom) and the first public discussion of the Carlisle Public School's request for an 11% to 14% increase in the budget for fiscal year 2003 (FY03). The FinCom guideline for next year's budget was 5%.
FinCom chair Tony Allison estimated roughly that a request of this magnitude would require a Proposition 2-1/2 override of $780,000 to $800,000, solely for school expenses. Even with a transfer of $250,000 from free cash and with other town departments holding increases to 2.8%, the school override figure could still top $600,000.
FinCom members and selectman Tim Hult, a former school committee chair, recalled the pain of 1990 when a nearly $700,000 override failed in the town. About 25% of the elementary school staff was laid off, the school library closed, and many programs were reduced or eliminated.
'Rocks falling on your head'
Carlisle School Committee (CSC) members explained that the budget is primarily determined by an enrollment increase of 4%, with more growth in the upper grades as families with older children move into town. CSC member David Dockterman also pointed out that the increase would have been much lower without mandated expenditures for special education outside placements and early retirement incentives, which CSC member Paul Morrison called "rocks falling on your head."
Major contributors to this $780,000 requested increase were:
(1) $245,000 for an increase of 8.25% in expenses for teachers, including salary increases of 4%, "step increases" for longevity and "lane changes" to reward additional education, and small increases in staffing levels;
(2) about $114,000 (13.84%) for similar expenses for special education teachers;
(3) about $147,000 for early retirement incentives (one of Morrison's "rocks");
(4) about $131,000 (60%) in additional costs for outside placements for special education students (the other "rock," offset by a reduction of about $47,000 in costs for students served by the Concord Area Special Education collaborative);
(5) $54,000 for a new reading specialist;
(6)$49,000 in operations and maintenance expenses.
These requests exclude capital costs for repairs and equipment replacement, which are included in the town, not the school, budget.
Salaries drive increases
"The heart and soul of the school are the teachers," and their salaries and other costs are "the bulk of the budget," Superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson observed, echoing a recurrent theme. FinCom member Lisa Jensen-Fellows and Allison focused on keeping teacher salary increases low as the key to reducing future tax increases, while FinCom member Simon Platt argued that class size is the most significant contributor to growth in expenses.
A 2% salary increase suggested by Jensen-Fellows was "not viable," Morrison declared, since the current contract was negotiated when inflation alone was higher than that level. Other costly provisions (step increases and lane changes) are the "industry standard." Teachers have been scarce, Morrison added, and they can easily leave to teach in another town. Or leave the profession altogether, CPS member Harry Crowther observed.
Early retirement incentives
A state-mandated early retirement program for teachers will "bump up" salary costs for the next two to three years. The five-year program requires schools to pay those who choose the program an incentive in the two years before retirement - an additional 20% of their salary in the first, 15% in the second year. CPS business manager Eileen Riley explained that next year's extra expenses will total nearly $150,000 in extra pay.
The state suggests that these costs will be replaced by savings later as more highly-paid retiring teachers are replaced by teachers with less experience at lower pay levels. School personnel take a more skeptical view, pointing out that excellent teachers, especially science and math teachers, will be very difficult to replace.
Looking for a way to spread the two-year bump in retirement expenses over several years, FinCom member Simon Platt suggested that FinCom consider treating these expenses "like a pension plan," somehow excluding these payments from the Proposition 2-1/2 base levy. The town could avoid permanently including the added expense in the public schools budget by borrowing the funds for these payments or otherwise creating a "deferred compensation" obligation, he said. He offered to explore this possibility further.
SPED cost per student questioned
As always, the special education (SPED) expenditures sparked questions. Responding to a question from FinCom member Dave Ives, SPED director Linda Stapp indicated she did not think that the less demanding federal guideline for determining special education services that takes effect January 1 would result in budget reductions. The school does not provide services beyond the federal standard now, she said.
Jensen-Fellows asked Stapp to explain why figures provided on a state website indicated that special education costs per student are much higher than Concord's ($23K vs. $16K). The website numbers are misleading, Stapp explained, because Carlisle's expenses provide more in-classroom services, which are not counted as special education services in the calculations Jensen-Fellows cited. Comparisons with other systems are difficult in general, since how expenses are allocated in budgets is not comparable from town to town, Stapp and Riley noted. FinCom members asked the CSC to reorganize special education expenses to permit comparisons with other districts.
How much for music and art?
Allison expressed interest in learning the cost of instrumental music and other arts programs, and asked the school to provide costs by program. "What would you do if you knew how much music and art cost?" Hult asked. It is "not the finance committee's responsibility" to decide priorities for the school budget. Learning about other "drivers of growth" in the school budget would be more meaningful than comparing the costs of math vs. music programs, Hult added.
The cost of being the best
Before deciding what school expenses the FinCom will support, Allison asked for a list of the "mandated items we have to pay for." Noting that the FinCom guidelines are "less flexible" than in prior years, Platt asked the school committee to prepare a FY03 budget representing a 7 to 8% increase, which he thought could be acceptable if the FinCom "stretch" their estimates of revenue and plan a transfer of free cash.
Taxpayers can see what it costs the town to have a school system in the "top five" in the state, FinCom members pointed out. "The town has a choice of whether to be in the top five, or the top 25, or 100," Platt noted. Taxpayers should "understand the price tag associated with" choosing to keep the average class size at 15 vs. 35. Small class size and teachers' salaries are what drive the school budget up, Platt emphasized.
Bad year for tax increases?
Throughout the evening both finance and school committee members referred often to anticipated resistance to tax increases this year. FinCom members in particular worried about loss of corporate bonuses and stock options, and what Larry Barton called a "nervousness" in the community exacerbated by layoffs, loss of disposable income and prior tax increases.
Several times Allison referred to FinCom projections (not yet made public) that the average taxpayer would soon be paying over $10,000 in property taxes. Voters will resist overrides for staffing and salary increases more than in the past, and the school committee should not assume that an override for operating expenses will pass this year, they advised. Despite rising property values, people will not support overrides and will rebel against "writing the check," he and others repeated.
To prepare for this resistance, Cindy Nock, a member of both the Carlisle and Concord-Carlisle school committees, asked that voters be provided with "good choices" and more than one option that is, that several levels of overrides be structured.
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito