Friday, January 30, 2004
CCHS asks 5.98% increase for FY05 Finn: cut administration, save student programs
Squeezed by double-digit increases in both special education and fixed costs, Concord-Carlisle School Superintendent Brenda Finn appeared before the Carlisle FinCom on January 21 to defend funding a 5.98% increase in the high school operating budget for the next fiscal year, FY05. The Level 2 budget, recommended by Finn and the Regional School Committee (RSC), totals $16,844,079 — $4,2995,349 of which would be funded by Carlisle — and would require cuts of $405,398 from the current (FY04) CCHS budget.
More drastic cuts would be needed to meet the Level 3 budget, recommended by the Concord FinCom, or the Level 4 Concord levy limit budget. At Level 4, which avoids the need for any override of Proposition 2-1/2, co-curricular activities would be reduced, the school radio station would be cut, and school athletics would be eliminated.
A Level 1 FY05 budget of $17,249,477 would fund all services at their current levels, cover newly identified needs, and restore deferred items. However the Regional School Committee apparently deemed this amount was unlikely to be supported by voters. According to the regional agreement, Concord and Carlisle voters must agree on a level of funding for the high school with the burden split between the two towns according to student ratios.
Focus on students
Finn, accompanied by Director of Financial Services John Flaherty, Director of Special Education Joanne Delaney, and RSC Chair Mike Fitzgerald, began her presentation by outlining "the core principles [that] have served in providing direction for the investment of resources." These included:
• Preserve staff, programs, and resources having the most direct impact on students and student learning,
• Absorb as many reductions as possible through retirements,
• Reorganize administrative functions for effectiveness and efficiency,
• Preserve excellence of special education while seeking fiscal efficiencies,
• Balance operational with capital needs.
"Reductions at this level (Level 2) impact students less," Finn noted, whereas Level 3 and 4 reductions "more directly impact students." Cuts in administration were taken first to help retain student programs.
Level 2: cuts in administration, larger classes
Finn noted the need for "regular education cuts to shift money elsewhere." Regular education funding will decrease $90K from FY04 under Level 2. Reductions will come from increasing the student:teacher ratio to 95:1, as allowed in the teachers contract "under compelling circumstances," and eliminating department chairs and increasing teaching loads for those who would have held those positions. "Chairs are very important in the culture of the high school," noted Finn. "There's been much discussion around this."
Other savings will come from restructuring administration to eliminate two positions, one in personnel and one in SPED. Other reductions include combining two METCO and instructional technology coordinator position, eliminating the subsidy for adult education, and reducing custodial staffing. "Those of us left will get to do more," said Finn, adding, "That's the trend of all districts and school systems."
Special education up 18.73%
"Special education (SPED) costs are escalating at a rate we really can't sustain," said Finn. In FY05 SPED at CCHS is expected to increase 18.73% or $500K over FY04. Costs include new out-of-district placements and reduced state reimbursement. "The state is telling us to budget 35% of what they promised us," said SPED Director Delaney. "Is there no law requiring the state to fund what they said they would?" asked FinCom member Bret Bero, tongue firmly in cheek.
Delaney noted the state's new "Circuit Breaker" funding formula for SPED disproportionately hits secondary school systems, and said the school would have gotten $100K more under the old formula. Other rising SPED costs include contractual salary increases and rising transportation costs for the CASE collaborative program.
Insurance, operational costs rising
Insurance also will see an exceptional cost increase in FY05, rising by $266K or 26%. However, on closer examination, $159K of this, a set-aside for unemployment payments if budget cuts require substantial layoffs, could be avoided. "A lot of this (increase) would go away under Level 2," said Finn. The FinCom asked for an analysis of the impact of layoffs at various funding levels.
Operations, which includes building-related expenses such as maintenance and utilities, will rise 8.51% in FY05, a $167K increase that includes a new school bus for $66K, a fiber optic network for $20K, and student information management software for $40K.
Fitzgerald noted the current software is "beyond antique" and can't handle newly mandated reporting requirements. When asked why these items were not on the Town Warrants, as is recommended for capital purchases, Fitzgerald explained these assets are shared with the Concord elementary schools and the CCHS share can't be voted separately. (The above numbers represent the CCHS share of the cost.)
Level 3: fewer electives, add fees
Level 3, the Concord FinCom-approved level, would require an additional $210K in reductions. Classes in art, music, and health and fitness would be lost. "That's clear we're cutting into elective offerings," said Finn, noting she didn't like to see the high school moving in that direction. She added, "Offering fewer electives is not a good thing," and more students may be assigned to study halls due to class unavailability.
Approximately $160K in Level 3 reductions would be realized by implementing a $40 fee for all co-curricular activities and a $180 fee for athletics. "Personally, I'm glad to see this in the budget, " said FinCom Chair Lisa Jensen-Fellows, who asked why fees weren't implemented at Level 2. Finn noted a "philosophical discussion" is taking place at the high school regarding how appropriate it is to charge fees for public school activities.
"Playing sports is a luxury," said Bero, adding, "I'm a huge supporter of athletics" and pointing out that many parents pay hundreds of dollars for their kids to participate in youth hockey and other private sports. Countered Fitzgerald, "Sports are becoming more and more of a requirement for students applying to top universities." Flaherty pointed to the "administrative nightmare" of collecting hundreds of fees, and RSC member Nicole Burkel in the audience noted that community service programs had to be discontinued due to the lack of administrative manpower.
A final item, to eliminate three SPED tutors, had the FinCom wondering how these reductions could be made if IEPs (Individual Education Plans) designate these resources. Admitting she had been "so unwilling" to include these cuts, Delaney said she was motivated by the desire to preserve regular education resources. "We are so dependent on the regular education budget. When regular education weakens, the SPED budget goes up."
Level 4: "devastating"
To reach Level 4, most co-curricular activities, the entire athletic program, applied technology (teaching desktop publishing and graphics), and other support services would be eliminated. "This level of cuts strikes me as at the core," said Jensen-Fellows. "This level would be devastating to the school district," agreed Finn. An additional $611,531 in reductions over Level 3 would be required.
"It's not just what goes on between 7:30 and 2:15 that makes CCHS the rich high school it is," continued Finn. "Students really need a life beyond the school day." She then detailed other losses, calling Senior Project, which would be eliminated, "meaningful" and Career Ed Counseling "really pretty critical." Fitzgerald pointed to the success of the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) remediation program, which would be reduced, noting that "CCHS is one of very few schools that didn't have one student fail to graduate [due to failure on the MCAS exams]." Finn said the radio station, which would be eliminated, "is a small cost to provide a critical service. It brings in kids who may not connect anywhere else."
Fitzgerald noted a number of uncertainties in the budgets, including unemployment insurance, two SPED judgments against the school that will cost an extra amount "well into the six figures," and the teachers contract that has yet to be settled. An adjustment was already included in the budgets for teachers salaries to reflect a 2.75% cost of living increase. Explained Flaherty, "It doesn't look likely they'll settle at 2%." In addition, the budgets assume the contract will call for a 4% increase for each "step" (for an additional year of service) as well as an amount for "lane changes" (for postgraduate credits).
Jensen-Fellows said the group had done "a fantastic job, especially the two new guys [Finn and Flaherty]. You shared a lot of information, much more than we're used to [from CCHS]. That helps us make a case to the town to support overrides." The Carlisle FinCom had originally issued a guideline for the high school at the Concord levy limit (Level 4). When all town departments have been heard from, the committee will consider whether a higher level is warranted or possible.
FinCom member David Trask suggested expanding foundation fundraising for the high school to prepare for the possibility voters don't support a higher-level budget. "Other towns have been at Level 3 or 4 for several years," he cautioned. Pointing to cuts at Level 4, he added, "If these programs are eliminated, it would hurt a lot of kids."
© 2004 The