Friday, February 10, 2006
High school seeks Carlisle's support for growing budget
Eager to avoid further cuts in the high school budget, on Monday, January 31, a power team that included Concord-Carlisle Regional School District (CCRSD) Superintendent Brenda Finn, Assistant Superintendent Diana Rigby, Director of Finance and Operations John Flaherty, Principal Art DuLong and Assistant Principal Jessica Truslow made a presentation to the Carlisle FinCom in support of the requested FY07 budget for the Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS). The Regional School Committee (RSC) has agreed to adopt the budget for the high school recommended by the Concord Finance Committee of $19,189,282. This is $423,183 below the school's original request and $188,872 below an adjusted request that eliminated some costs that could be absorbed, deferred, or met through grants.
The RSC-adopted budget will require an override in Concord. (State law limits the annual increase in property taxes to 2-1/2% without an override vote.) No decision has been made on an override in Carlisle. If the override fails, $473,782 in additional cuts to instructional staffing, guidance and co-curricular support could follow in order to reach the Concord levy limit budget of $18,715,500. Under the regional agreement both Concord and Carlisle voters must approve the same budget level for the high school, which is then allocated to the towns according to enrollment percentages.
Special education costs rise
The adopted budget would represent a $1,235,450 (6.88%) increase over FY06. The preliminary budget had contained a $1,424,322 (7.9%) increase. Nearly one-third of that increase was in the area of special education (SPED). The FY06 budget will see a $350,000 SPED shortfall due to new SPED students requiring out-of-district placements. These new costs are expected to continue, pushing the FY07 projected SPED increase to $440,000, according to Assistant Principal Truslow.
The numbers of students requiring special education has been increasing by three students per year, noted Truslow. The population requiring special education now contains 191 students, or 15% of the total student population. "We saw an 11% increase in the freshman class," she said, adding there has also been a 50% increase in students with "serious impairments." Currently 44 students are in outplacement at costs averaging $53,000 for a day program and over $100,000 for residential. The state "circuit breaker" program reimburses part of these SPED costs (see "State aid to schools: the rich get poorer," page 7.)
Over the past two years the "circuit breaker" formula has held steady at 72%. But the school has had to assume more support as funding for social service agencies such as the Department of Mental Retardation and Department of Mental Health has dropped. FinCom member Dave Trask asked where school responsibility ends in a situation of mental impairment. "The school is responsible if the impairment impacts the student's ability to access the curriculum," said Truslow. "Can the school push back?" asked Trask. Truslow shook her head, "We try a lot, but it doesn't happen." Finn noted that whereas agencies can reduce their caseloads, "Schools are always here. We're it."
Salaries add to costs
Another third of the original 7.9% cost increase was due to rising salaries representing $493,417. Contractually, high school teachers receive a 4% "step" increase, but with other incentives, according to Flaherty, "This year a teacher who has not maxed out would receive a 7.75% increase." Finn noted that "significant numbers" of teachers are reaching retirement age, so that this year ten new teachers were brought into the school. FinCom member Trask wondered why newer teachers were not bringing salary costs down. Principal Dulong said the high school's policy is to "hire the best candidate in the pool" and that candidates usually have six or seven years of experience. This year contracts for secretaries, custodial workers, maintenance workers and bus drivers will be negotiated, and therefore a $50,000 contingency was included.
The other third of the cost increase included rising debt service ($120,687), retirement ($24,633), utilities and fuel ($100,000), and insurance ($126,308). In addition, identified high priority needs for technology support, maintenance, the STEP program (which assists students who might not graduate), music, and guidance added another $165,000.
Support lost for STEP, radio, senior project
Having adopted a lower budget figure than originally anticipated, and finding cost increases for SPED, salaries, insurance and utilities unavoidable, the school looked elsewhere for the $188,872 in cuts required to reach the Concord FinCom level. Those were found in reducing supplies, materials, and equipment by $80,458, reducing the STEP request from $46,340 to $15,446, reducing the legal budget by $16,876 (which Finn called "risky, because legal issues might pop up"), by reducing summer maintenance and cutting a campus monitor, and by eliminating support for the school radio station ($8,000) and for senior project ($21,683). It is hoped the radio station will find external funding; senior project is a tradition that will likely be lost.
Teacher cuts if no override
Finn called the agreed-to cuts "difficult ones," but noted that if the Concord override does not pass and the levy-limit budget is adopted, "it would affect the program very negatively." Classes would be cut in English, foreign language and science, two sections would be lost in social studies, and three in math for a total of 2.25 full-time equivalencies (FTEs). Finn said these cuts would be a setback for the school, which has seen enrollment up by 33% over the past eight years and is "just beginning to address the need for an increase." This year sections were added in math, music, drama, health and fitness.
Other losses would include a social worker, a reduction by half in department chairs, no funding of co-curricular programs, which would be supported by fees, a technology reduction, a cut in athletic equipment expenditures, and elimination of the STEP program, all campus monitoring, and all summer maintenance. Finn called the social worker "a critical position when we're seeing a dramatic increase in students' emotional needs" and predicted more out-of-district SPED placements might result. In response to a question about reducing department chairs, Finn admitted that, although the administration believes the reduction is within the teachers' contract, "the union has informed us there would be a grievance or job action."
State funding up, but not enough
Superintendent Finn noted, "The citizens [of Concord and Carlisle] have demonstrated their support as state aid has been reduced, and for that we are grateful." She said the governor's current FY07 proposal would allocate $1,622,521 in Chapter 70 state aid to CCHS, an 8.5% increase over FY06. However, Finn said that Chapter 70 aid has not kept up with school growth; last year's FY06 number provided only 8.26% of the total school budget, compared to 12.4% in FY02. "The taxpayers of Concord and Carlisle have stepped up and covered that," said Finn. She contrasted CCHS with Acton-Boxboro High School, where state aid cuts have led to "pretty catastrophic reductions," including teaching loads of 150 students, 50% higher than at CCHS.
Finn said she had attended a meeting in Acton the night before of about 150 representatives of the region's schools looking to unite behind a new proposal for a $2,000 floor to the per pupil state aid allocation. The governor's proposal uses a formula that provides widely divergent allocations on a per-student basis. The lowest is $576 per student, the highest $9,917. Concord-Carlisle would receive $1,142 (Carlisle Public School $803).
Capital request is $1.27 million
Given the new uncertainty regarding state reimbursements of school building projects, Finn also presented a list of identified capital needs based on the expectation a new school will not be in place until at least 2012. In FY07, $1,270,000 will be needed for asbestos abatement, repairs and improvements to fire safety, generator installation, ventilation, replacement of the existing intercom system, and lighting upgrades. All of these represent health or safety issues which cannot be deferred, even though the investment will be lost if and when the school is razed. These requests will be reviewed by the Carlisle Long Term Capital Committee. Additional unrecoverable investments will be needed in future years, especially if the roof, installed in 1984, fails ($1.8 million) or if plumbing must be replaced ($2.6 million).
FinCom to decide March 13
The presentation focused on costs and cuts and did not provide a budget overview. FinCom member Barbara Bjornson asked that Flaherty provide an updated budget, noting the presentation did not give percentage increases and made it hard to assess the big picture. Flaherty agreed to send the budget later. Another point of concern was the school's budgetary assumption of level-funded state aid, when the governor's budget already includes an increase and the state legislature has a long-standing tendency to increase aid to education over the governor's numbers. Asked whether the school would return higher-than-expected state aid money to the towns, Flaherty admitted, "If we had more, we would quickly look to close the $188,000" in cuts required to reach the currently-adopted Concord FinCom level budget.
Because Carlisle's high school assessment percentage is lower this year than last due to a proportionally smaller freshman class, Flaherty expressed the hope that "with the assessment shift Carlisle can fund the adopted budget within the levy limit," thus avoiding the need to pass overrides in both towns. FinCom chair Thornton Ash noted the committee will be evaluating the needs of all departments and hopes to make a recommendation at their meeting March 13.
FinCom expresses disappointment
After the CCHS group left and the Minuteman High School (MMRHS) had been heard, several members of the FinCom expressed dissatisfaction with the CCHS presentation. Dave Model said he was "a little disappointed," and contrasted it with the MMRHS package which he called "impressive." Sue Wolfe was concerned that a budget "one-half million dollars over the levy" was not being scrutinized while "we're nickel and diming other departments." She said she would "love to" require the high school to return any state aid overages to the towns. Ash agreed there was "not as much detail" as in the past, but noted the FinCom's limitations, "Are we going to question teachers' contracts?" He suggested waiting to see the budget Flaherty was sending, after which a decision could be made whether to invite CCHS back for more clarification.
The budget information was received this week and, according to Ash, is "a very comprehensive package." While the committee had not yet had a chance to review it, he expected they "will be satisfied."
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