The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 9, 2008

Recognizing mandates, Town Meeting passes override

Article 15, providing an additional $251,610 for the Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS), was the subject of dismayed discussion at Town Meeting. Several attendees expressed disappointment that special education mandates are raising costs while squeezing regular education. But in the end, voters stepped back from pushing the town toward a showdown with Concord, and supported the Article with only a few “nays.” The override must now pass at Town Election on May 13 to take effect.

Tough year for budgeting

Board of Selectmen (BOS) Chair Tim Hult called this budget year “easily one of the most difficult years I’ve seen in my 20 years of service to the town.” He said the School Committee did “an excellent job to get the budget to this level” and added, “The results of not voting for this [override] are onerous for both towns.” He noted the BOS had voted 3 to 1 with one absent to recommend the override.

Mike Fitzgerald, chair of the Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee (RSC), thanked the town for its support of the high school, and presented an overview showing the accomplishments and challenges of the past year. Electives have been added, technology improved, and facilities upgraded, with two modular classrooms and health and safety issues addressed.

Containing costs while making progress has been difficult, however, particularly as CCHS was hit with a 20.4% increase in special education costs. In addition, Carlisle has seen its percentage of students at the high school, and its percentage of costs, rise from 23.5% in 1997 to 28.1% in 2007. Other school budget “cost drivers” presented on the RSC handout included teacher salary increases and health insurance.

Fitzgerald detailed the steps CCHS has made to reduce costs, including cutting the materials and supplies budget in half, and reducing regular education expenditures by 0.9%. Last year total enrollment grew by four (0.3%) to a total of 1,308 students. Special education services are provided to 16% of the students enrolled in the high school.

Without override CCHS faces layoffs

If the Carlisle budget level without the override were to hold, CCHS would have to return $641,257 already approved by Concord, and lay off 7.5 full-time equivalent teachers and 10.375 full-time support staff equivalents, while reducing athletics and co-curricular programs. With the cost of unemployment insurance, the regional school district budget would see a $1,072,867 hit.

Fitzgerald concluded, if the override passes, “we can go home for the summer,” but if it were to fail, a joint Town Meeting with Concord would be the likely outcome.

Dave Model, FinCom chair, said “There’s been good fiscal management at the high school and we support it” unanimously. He defended the use of an override rather than a fund transfer, which would not raise the base tax level for next year and would leave reserves below the recommended 3.5% of the town budget. He said that cutting other costs, “is not really feasible in our opinion.” Noting the Carlisle population at the high school has gone from 191 to 332 in the past decade, Model observed, “It’s our kids at our high school.”

Special education funding debated

John Ballantine of Fiske Street pointed to the rising cost of special education, “How are we addressing both the short term and long term?” Fitzgerald noted the unusual burden this year in which 11 students were identified with extreme special needs, including post-traumatic stress, suicidal and homicidal tendencies, and bi-polar syndrome. Long term the school will add services, including more investment in the Pathways Program, and has undertaken weekly clinical meetings. Both Rep. Cory Atkins and Sen. Susan Fargo have been urged to “try to get the state to pick up more of their share.”

Tom Dunkers of East Street asked, “What’s the long-range plan for separating education and health?” Fitzgerald responded, “You’re preaching to the choir,” adding that insurance companies have been relieved of the cost of underwriting mental and emotional problems, and the burden has been transferred to schools. Peter Kirlin of Tanglewood Way observed that, “At $80,000 per [SPED] student, the numbers don’t stack.”

Kerry Kissinger of Elizabeth Ridge Road said, “It sounds like everyone has done as much as they can possibly do.” He clarified the 3.7% overall increase in taxes, 1.3% of which would be from the override, and then questioned the use of an override, which raises taxes permanently, because the cost of special education “could be less next year.” Model responded that a cash transfer was considered and rejected as “not prudent long-term planning given the challenges.”

Nicole Burkel, chair of the Carlisle School Committee and formerly of the RSC, said special education “is a mandate by the state” and if the budget were cut, “a very high percentage of students would be severely impacted by this.” She urged residents to contact Carlisle’s representatives and the governor’s office and “announce your displeasure at these unfunded mandates.”

Selectman Doug Stevenson, who had been the “no” vote on the BOS, spoke: “This is the beginning of a very important discussion we need to have regarding funding special education at the high school.” He added, “It’s a real Catch-22 if this goes down, because more funding will come away from regular education.” He pointed to Fitzgerald’s suggestion that a passed override would let everyone “go home for the summer” and suggested instead that, “some hard work be done this summer so next year we can avoid this.” ∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito