Friday, January 11, 2008
CCHS defends FY09 budget request
The loss of several teachers and support staff, elimination of new programs such as theater arts, and cuts in athletic and co-curricular activities are just some of the possible impacts if a guideline budget proposed by the Carlisle Finance Committee (FinCom) is adopted for the Concord-Carlisle High School. This was the message carried by Superintendent Brenda Finn, who brought her full team, including Principal Peter Badalament, Director of Finance and Operations John Flaherty, and Assistant Superintendent Diana Rigby, to the FinCom review on Monday, January 7. This was the first of a series of reviews of town budgets that will take place throughout January and February and culminate in a FinCom budget recommendation to the selectmen in March.
To meet Carlisle's guideline, $892,867 would have to be slashed from the FY09 budget recommended by the Regional School Committee (RSC) and already accepted by the Concord FinCom. The result would be "a significantly diminished regional high school system," according to the summary report distributed at the meeting.
SPED drives up costs
A huge rise in special education costs is driving a budget that has few increases for other programs. Finn pointed to details of the RSC proposal showing most line items up by small percentages over FY08, and many with reductions. But eleven students with significant special needs were added in FY08, increasing this one line item by $775,000. "Without special education, the (RSC-proposed) budget is just about flat," said Finn.
The school has worked to contain the budget in response to a difficult fiscal situation, Finn noted. The FY09 RSC budget includes a 50% cut in instructional materials over FY08, saving $232,000. It also defers purchase of a bus which would cost $70,000.
Programs the school had hoped to implement, such as assistance for at-risk freshmen, an intramural soccer program, and additional electives in science, music, theater, and public speaking have been abandoned for now. In addition, no capital improvements for the high school will be requested.
Teachers, staffing could be lost
To meet Carlisle's guideline many additional cuts would be needed. These would include 7.45 teacher FTEs (full-time equivalents), along with 10.375 support staff FTEs, saving a total of $724,156. However, those savings would be partly offset by increased unemployment liability estimated at $180,000. Savings of $186,167 would be realized by reducing athletics 30%, eliminating the radio station, and reducing co-curricular by 10%. The rest, about $150,000, would be made up by cutting professional development and contracts, and further reducing equipment and materials purchases already cut in the RSC-proposed budget.
Finn observed that "modest" staffing growth at the school over the past few years has been needed "to parallel some of the growth that we've seen" in student population, which has risen 38% in the past decade. Electives have been added because students were unable to meet state requirements for hours spent on academics. Sports teams recently formed were the first to be added in a decade. "The additions we've made were not capricious ones," she summarized.
Where to find $251,610?
FinCom Chair Dave Model confirmed that he had no doubt "if a program is at the school, it deserves to be there and is well managed." However, if the RSC budget goes forward, Carlisle will have to find an additional $251,610 to meet its share. One possibility would be to request an override, a vote at Annual Town Meeting to increase taxes above the 2-1/2% limitation under Massachusetts law. However, other town entities, including the Carlisle School, will likely have override requests, and Model noted a large proposed override might not have much probability of passing.
Under the regional agreement, Carlisle and Concord must pass the same funding level for the high school, which is then divided according to the ratio of each town's students. If not achieved at their respective Town Meetings and elections, agreement must come from a joint Town Meeting. In this scenario, Concord, with three times the voting population, would likely have its way, and Carlisle would have to meet the higher level. To avoid all this, the Carlisle FinCom would prefer to agree on a level with Concord up front that does not depend on passage of a Carlisle override.
One way to achieve this would be to fund the difference from reserves. About $300,000 could be transferred from Free Cash without violating a policy that $600,000, or 3% of the budget, be kept in the account. But Model questioned the fairness to other town departments of applying this only to the high school.
Looking at priorities
A list of over 30 items that could be on the chopping block, arranged according to priority, were reviewed. Finn was asked to outline the thinking behind the prioritization. She noted that the teacher's contract limits the number of students a teacher can have to 90, except in extraordinary financial circumstances, when it can go to 95. One of the first items on the chop list (after reducing radio staff and halving professional development) was to inform the union the higher ratio is needed. This would reduce staffing by two teachers. Average class sizes would increase from about 23 students to about 25, with some potentially higher.
Next on the list would be cuts to athletics and co-curricular activities. Finn underlined the importance of these for providing student connection to the school, but said that because they are not mandated, they are an easier target for rollbacks. Next are staffing cuts, including reductions in SPED tutors, career education, health education, guidance, custodial, a library aide, and elimination of the campus monitor. Finn noted that these jobs "can be cost-effective" and pointed to the way the campus monitor prevents disciplinary situations from developing. Without him, "There will be more work for administrators paid four times what he is, who will have to take time off more important work." Also gone would be the remaining budget for text books.
The next area hit would be four theater arts electives, an area "just built over the past three years." Without these electives, more students would be assigned to study halls, and the possibility rises for some students to be unable to satisfy minimal requirements. "We must be careful about reducing core and elective courses," said Finn.
The final, and highest priority items would be dispensing with department chairs while increasing the teaching workload of those now holding those positions, and other staff cuts, including a social worker, the radio station manager, nurse's assistant, clerical support, and custodian. Finn noted the nurse attends to 1,250 students with only a half-time assistant, and "already has a pretty heavy workload." The elimination of department chairs would "change the culture of the high school. We would get a tremendous amount of push-back on that." Badalament agreed, noting the value chairs bring in management, overseeing curriculum, and hiring and evaluating staff.
Managing SPED costs
Further discussion ensued regarding the ability to control the costs of special education. Rigby noted the school has done much to provide in-house support to students with special needs, but "not all disabilities lend themselves to that support." Students with bi-polar, schizophrenic, or anorexic profiles often require a therapeutic environment available only through out-placement. It is difficult to predict future placements because these difficulties often arise in the teen years, but Flaherty hazarded, "I don't think we're going to see a dropping off of special education."
Now, what to do with the SPED overrun for this year? Changes in placements have reduced the projected FY08 deficit from over $900,000 to $740,000. By deferring a bus purchase, reducing spending in various accounts, and applying to the state for an "extraordinary relief" grant of $279,926, the school hopes to be able to avoid asking the towns for a supplemental FY08 budget. A placeholder request is being placed on Town Warrants, but Finn pronounced herself hopeful that "with prudent financial practices and belt tightening we won't have to move this." A big unknown is whether the grant will come through, and the school will not hear until mid-March.
Model was satisfied that "I think we have the information we need" to consider the high school's place in the budget structure. After the other departmental reviews are completed, the high school will be invited back, probably in early March.
It was noted that at the request of the School Committee, the FinCom hearing on the Carlisle School has been moved back until January 23.
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