Friday, February 14, 2003
RSC, FinCom spar over high school budget
Politics in its most basic form is a conflict over competing values between committed individuals. On February 5, the Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee (RSC) and the Carlisle Finance Committee clashed over their respective missions to maintain current services and high educational standards at CCHS versus developing a budget that the Carlisle community can afford in a very bad fiscal year. The outcome of that debate likely will determine not only next year's high school operating budget, but also the operating budgets for other town departments, and possibly, the passage of the proposed high school renovations capital plan.
On one side, the RSC is proposing a "survival budget," a 9.3% increase over the current year. On the other side, Carlisle town officials calculate that this would require a $500,000 budget override, which they and the town will not accept this year. A middle ground has not yet been found.
Maintaining level services
Acting CCHS superintendent Gene Thayer presented the regional school committee's FY04 budget which totals $17,049,565, an increase of $1,454,031, or 9.3% over FY03. Thayer stated that usually the school comes to the FinCom seeking funding for new programs and services to enhance the educational experience. "This year there is nothing new," he said. "We are recommending a survival budget just to maintain the services we have been providing."
To get down to the levy-limit budget or the higher figure recommended by the Concord FinCom would require cuts of $1,577,435 and $913,007, respectively, not including reductions in local aid from the state. (See list of cuts in the February 7 issue of the Mosquito, available in the library and on the web.)
Concord members on the regional school committee believe passionately in promoting the mission statement of maximizing public education excellence. RSC chair Betsy Bilodeau asserted that the job of the school committee is to represent the interests of the students•unyieldingly. When challenged by FinCom chair Larry Barton on the magnitude of the budget increase and whether this is a "scrubbed budget," she stood firm. "In my mind, this is a scrubbed budget. Any dollars taken away are a reduction in service," she stated. "If you are saying that the RSC should make that determination [to reduce services to manage costs], then I say the voters will need to make that call. The RSC will advocate for this budget because this is a uniquely difficult year."
When RSC vice-chair Michael Fitzgerald of Carlisle acknowledged the need to respond to the financial pressures facing the town, Bilodeau instead challenged the FinCom to "put a number on the table." She continued, "We have a well-run school. If you buy into what we have and want, the real challenge is how to pay for it." Former RSC member Cindy Nock, in the audience, warned, "Don't fool yourself into thinking you'll get the same education for less money."
FinCom member Lisa Jensen-Fellows challenged the RSC, "especially members from Carlisle," to understand the implications of accepting the RSC budget. "If Concord passes the override and Carlisle doesn't, there will be a special joint town meeting. Because Concord dominates, the budget will pass. This will require Carlisle to 'whack' the K-8 education budget."
FinCom members Debra Belanger and Tony Allison probed hard on the assumptions underlying the budget. Superintendent Thayer was challenged on such items as computer procurements, a $10,000 increase for the radio station, and $21,672 resulting from the upcoming accreditation. Allison stated that "if the CPS and town departments can do it [meet the budget guidelines], CCHS can do it." FinCom member Dave Trask stated that the tax rate associated with the school budget is not affordable. He reminded the RSC that "the source of funds to support the schools comes from families without kids."
Defending educational values
Thayer responded to the tone of the conversation by stating, "I feel like you have been lying in wait for me for the whole year. I don't like to bring in a 10% budget increase. I didn't come to the community to create problems; I came because I have a high regard for the educational values of the two towns." He argued that the uncontrollable fixed cost increases (such as insurance) and the loss of state aid represent $1.4 million of the $1.9 million assessment increases for Concord and Carlisle. The FY04 budget is a "responsible, reasonable figure given the times we live in. It pains me to look at reductions."
Carlisle Selectman Tim Hult summarized the challenge: "At $13,500 per student, which is in the top 3% of the nation, we do support quality." Yet, he warned that the town budget is a huge challenge. He listed the teachers' contract and special education as the two major school cost-drivers. (See accompanying stories on page .)
Hult also linked the RSC operating budget and the high school's $45 million capital renovation proposal, a part of which may come before the Town Meeting this year. Carlisle residents, he suggested, would evaluate the reasonableness of the capital request based on the ability of the RSC to control its operating budget. This was a show of muscle; although Carlisle could be outvoted by Concord in a show-down over the high school operating budget, a "no" vote on the CCHS renovation plan would stop the entire project.
Hult concluded by warning the RSC, "We cannot get a $500,000 override through."
Looking for the middle ground
At the conclusion of the meeting, Bilodeau, Barton and Hult agreed that it is now time to begin a detailed conversation on how to address the significant gap between the RSC-approved budget and the FinCom guidelines. Barton stated, "We need a middle ground. If that is the Concord FinCom guideline, fine. If it's something higher, let's talk."
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito