The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 29, 2008

News

Town searches for options in budget crunch

Faced with a budget impasse, the Finance Committee (FinCom) on Tuesday, February 26, proposed to the Selectmen a creative solution: allow the Carlisle School to swap computers for teachers in order to restore elementary world languages, a language arts specialist, and technology integration. The Board of Selectmen (BOS) reviewed the proposal which will likely be voted on by the Carlisle School Committee at their meeting March 5.

The FinCom has completed its review of town budgets for FY09, and at their meeting Monday, was looking at requests above the guideline budget issued in November. This included $480,000 from the Carlisle Public School (CPS), $250,000 from the Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS), and about $100,000 from other town entities, including the library, police, and DPW. It was time to juggle: what combination of Free Cash, departmental cuts, and proposed override (voter-approved tax increase above Proposition 2 ½ caps) would optimize services while bringing costs into line and gaining the support of taxpayers?

The Selectmen and FinCom have set a long-term goal of reducing budget growth and minimizing overrides. “We need look at not only what will pass but what we think is a responsible thing for us to be putting forward,” said Selectman Doug Stevenson at the BOS meeting on Tuesday. The belief is that allowing budgets to increase will only cause more pain in the future. Even if the FinCom were to support a large override, it was not clear voters would join them. “More than $300,000 or $350,000 is going to be trouble,” said FinCom Chair Dave Model on Monday.

Another consideration is Carlisle’s status as the junior partner in the regional school district. Concord’s Finance Committee is supporting the CCHS budget without an override, while Carlisle must find $250,000 to meet that level. Although Carlisle could propose a different budget level, under the regional contract a disagreement with Concord would likely be resolved in a way that would favor Concord. To avoid pointless conflict, the Concord level is usually accepted in Carlisle. It was noted that, partly in deference to Carlisle’s constraints, the CCRSD had declined to request any capital funds in FY09 to ease the burden of supporting the operating budget.

Free Cash in demand

The decision on how to structure the town budget is made more difficult this year as bad news seems to just keep on coming. A faltering real estate market, expensive tax lawsuits, and rising costs for special education at the high school are just some sources of insecurity as the town looks toward 2009. The town’s Free Cash balance of $907,034 seems large, but there are several potential demands. CCHS has an $800,000 overrun for special education expenses this year and may request $100,000 from Carlisle at Town Meeting. Bond rating agencies suggest retaining 3% of the budget, or $600,000, in Free Cash, so if $100,000 is reserved for the supplemental request, only $200,000 is available for possible cash infusion.

The levy limit budget for the Carlisle School would require up to 14 teacher layoffs. This would incur additional costs for unemployment insurance, estimated at approximately $150,000. As the insurance account is held by Town Hall and not the school, the Town Hall budget would be in deficit if no provision were made for this.

Another concern is that two tax law suits totaling $412,000 have been judged against Carlisle. The town has agreed to pay the first for $309,000 and the other for $103,000 is still pending. These will most likely be dealt with a transfer from the Stabilization Fund, but provide another reason to hoard Free Cash. Also, a heavy year for snow plowing has caused the “snow and ice” line item to be overrun in the FY08 budget. Barton noted this can probably be covered “if the snow stops now,” added McKenzie.

Carlisle School budget

Having decided a $450,000 override request for the Carlisle Schools would be untenable, the FinCom proposed a creative solution. What if the $80,000 set aside for school computers within the Long Term Capital Expenses budget were reduced to zero, and the operating budget increased by $80,000? This would partly restore the top tier requested by the Carlisle School that included elementary world languages, a language arts specialist, technology integration, Marie Doyle, who attended the beginning of the meeting, expressed support, noting that the Carlisle Education Foundation and Carlisle School Association might be willing to fund computers to at least partly bring back the technology losses, but would be unlikely to pay salaries to restore classes.

Later, Finance Director Larry Barton expressed the opinion that if the $80,000 and another $45,000 were added to the operating budget, the school would try to get by without an override. The School Committee might not approve the plan, but FinCom Chair Dave Model noted, “It’s hard to argue that teachers don’t come before machines.” This solution also reduces the unemployment expense by $40,000 as it allows the school to retain three teachers otherwise targeted for layoff.

CCHS override proposed

A proposal was made to put the $251,600 for the high school on an override. The strategy was questioned, but Model said that putting the full amount on override would inform voters of the true cost of the high school. In addition, an override increases the levy next year, while a Free Cash transfer does not. “I am personally upset there wasn’t more of an accommodation (to Carlisle constraints)” added Model, and if the override fails, “Concord needs to hear we aren’t lined up.”

Free Cash to cover unemployment, literacy

Assuming approval of the computers-for-teachers swap for the CPS, the FinCom proposed to the Selectmen that $155,000 in Free Cash be transferred to the budget. This would cover expected unemployment insurance due to layoffs at the CPS of up to $110,000 and add $45,000 to the CPS budget to cover the cost of a literacy specialist. In addition to the $600,000 minimum cushion, $150,000 would be retained in Free Cash against the possibility of other costs that might crop up, including a supplemental request for the FY08 CCHS budget.

It was noted that the Conservation Commission and Minuteman School District requested less than guideline for FY09, freeing about $25,000 in the levy limit budget. It was agreed to apply these funds to the costs of electricity and fuel in the police and communications departments.

Before the FinCom meeting, Don Rober of the Long-Term Capital Requirements Committee reported that all recommendations for capital expenditures for FY09 will be within the levy limit budget. However, looking ahead to FY10, over $4,000,000 in capital requests have already been identified, including roofing at both CPS and CCHS. It has also recently been determined the DPW will need a new building, an expense that was not figured into these numbers.

FY08 Supplemental funds

may be requested for CCHS

A huge rise in special education costs is has added $800,000 in unexpected costs to the budget for CCHS this year. Eleven students were identified with significant special needs early in the year, most requiring out-of-district placements. Although the school has attempted to cover the overrun by transferring funds from other accounts, there is still a $400,000 deficit.

At a FinCom meeting in January, Superintendent Brenda Finn reported that the school has applied for a grant from the state to cover the cost. However, she will not know until March whether the grant has been approved. If it is not, the high school will be coming to the towns for a supplemental request, of which Carlisle’s portion would be about $100,000.

The FinCom, Selectmen and Carlisle School Committee will continue review of FY09 budget plans during meetings next week. ∆


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