Friday, July 18, 2003
High school facing budget reductions after cuts in state aid Concord asks for 2% cut; RSC backs 1%
It was all supposed to be over. Using conservative assumptions of state aid, both towns had approved the 2003-04 (FY04) budget for Concord-Carlisle Regional High School at their respective Town Meetings last May. However, in late June, the governor announced unexpectedly large cuts in aid to towns, leaving Concord with a shortfall of almost $900,000. Concord Selectmen responded by asking all Concord town departments and the regional high school to reduce their FY04 budgets by 2%. Additionally, the state has imposed new budget rules, requiring towns with regional districts to readjust the amounts paid to the districts by July 15.
At a meeting organized at the last minute on July 14 at the Concord Town Hall, the Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee (RSC) voted to cut 1%, or $136,000, from the high school budget, and discussed various options to make up the remainder of Concord's shortfall.
RSC confronts reduction request
If the high school budget were cut by 2%, many staff cuts would be needed, explained Brenda Finn, new Concord-Carlisle Superintendent. She referred to a list made up by Acting Superintendent Eugene Thayer during the spring of 2003 in preparation for possible override failures, which listed, in priority order, the possible cuts to the budget. Items such as "1.0 Custodian" and "Career Ed Assistant" were near the top of the list, but further down, past the 1% point, were items such as "Music Secretary," "Maintenance Personnel" (one full-time equivalent position), "Health Curriculum Specialist," and "Campus Monitor."
RSC committee member Betsy Bilodeau pointed out that citizens voted for the specific high school program, and they need an opportunity to vote on the potential cuts to the program. "In my mind, it's very, very fair to ask voters" whether they would support further taxes for the high school, said Bilodeau.
Committee member Jerry Wedge, saying he was "new at this," asked why some of the shortfall couldn't be made up by the town's free cash. Concord Finance Committee member Hugh Bauer explained that the portion of free cash over the 5% reserve is approximately $600,000. Any excess over the 5% is traditionally used to reduce the Concord tax rate, usually applied in the fall. If the excess is used to reduce the cuts to the school budget, the funds wouldn't be available for use for the FY04 tax reduction. "Isn't it strange to go to a Town Meeting, ask for more money, and then reduce the taxes?" asked Bilodeau. "It's not strange," answered Bauer.
Bilodeau questioned the potential August Concord Town Meeting, saying she felt it was "unfair" to "rush to a Town Meeting" at a time when many residents could be away. She wondered if there was something the committee could do to send a message of cooperation to the Concord Selectmen, and possibly avoid an August Town Meeting. RSC Chair and Carlisle resident Michael Fitzgerald suggested a "three-prong approach" to the budget shortfall:
1. Transfer funds from Concord free cash
2. Ask voters to vote in new taxes
3. Make budget cuts.
Carlisle supports 1% cut
Fitzgerald explained that in Carlisle the Selectmen and the Finance Committee, also faced with the 2% reduction request for their portion of the high school assessment, voted to recommend a "zero to up to 1% cut" instead of the 2% cut. "So, they are in agreement?" asked committee member Betsy Bilodeau, referring to the two Carlisle boards. "They are in agreement," answered Fitzgerald, and said there was a spirit of cooperation in Carlisle, and an eagerness to work out the situation with Concord.
RSC proposes 1% cut
Committee member Pat Sinnott began a "good faith motion" which would include language reassuring the Selectmen that the committee would not hold the town to the full assessment voted in last spring. Fitzgerald suggested a motion that would "come to a common ground," saying a vote for 1% would show support for Carlisle.
Committee member Rebecca Shannon made a motion for the 1% cut, which passed. An additional motion asking the Selectmen to not hold a Town Meeting in August also passed. The meeting was adjourned to allow RSC members to attend the Concord Selectmen meeting and present the decision of the committee.
Concord Selectmen's meeting
At a meeting of the Concord Board of Selectmen later the same evening, Fitzgerald explained that the committee had debated options, voted to reduce the assessment by 1%, and additionally voted to request a delay in the Town Meeting. Delaying Town Meeting, he said, would allow the full community to debate the financial issues, "not just those here in dead of August." Selectmen chair Richard Edes, holding a summary of last spring Concord town votes, noted that the Concord Public School budget passed by a "mere 56 votes," and that the regional high school budget passed by 81 votes, voicing his skepticism that the voters would want to vote in further taxes in support of the schools. He then read a letter from the Carlisle boards, which explained the votes for the 1% reduction. "Since it wasn't the amount we were talking about, I'm not sure what they're matching," he said, referring to the language in the letter that spoke of making matching reductions.
How to make up the shortfall?
Concord Selectman Joseph Lenox asked Fitzgerald how the rest of the requested cuts would be made up. Fitzgerald explained that some amount could be reduced by the free cash. "You have over $700,000 in your Excess and Deficiencies account [the high school E & D account], yet you expect the Town of Concord to use free cash" to cover the cuts needed, Edes responded. "I beg to respectfully disagree," said Fitzgerald, explaining the E & D account cannot be depleted below 5%. The Town of Concord has millions in free cash, and has $600,000 over the 5% minimum, continued Fitzgerald. In addition, a shortfall of $140,000, which is a past error in the regional budget, will have to be covered from the E & D account.
Selectman Anne Shapiro expressed concern that with only a 1% reduction, the remaining deficit would have to be covered by the Concord town departments, noting they will be below the levy limit after the required 2% cuts. Selectman Ruth Lauer agreed, "We cannot find more than 2% in the town budget to cut, and 2% will be very painful." The Selectmen concluded the discussion of budget cuts without reaching any agreement with the RSC, and voted to call an August 11 Town Meeting in Concord.
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