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Confusion over size of school appropriation delays next year’s budget; cuts to follow

The preparation of the fiscal 2022 school budget is running late this year because of confusion that began with last year’s budget. The fiscal 2021 school budget that voters approved last fall had been through four versions, not counting smaller revisions, reductions, and restorations. The new fiscal 2022 budget is supposed to be levelly funded—that is, limited to the same amount from the town as last year. But all those fiscal 2021 changes created uncertainty about what that exact total was. As a result, last week the School Committee found itself needing to cut more than a third of a million dollars from a budget it had hoped was finished.

Last month, the School Committee sent a budget request of $14,258,930 for fiscal 2022 to the Finance Committee, believing it to be the same as the final amount approved for fiscal 2021 at last October’s Fall Town Meeting. But some members of FinCom found errors in the calculation and said the new request was substantially higher than last year’s, although it was not clear by exactly how much.

After consulting with the town’s former finance director, Lori Bolasevich, the two committees now agree that the correct amount for a level-funded budget in the coming year is $13,984,923. School Committee members already knew they still needed to cut $66,000 in expenditures to get down to their promised budget total. But the new number meant they needed to cut much more—$340,000 in all.

At a Jan. 7 meeting of the School Committee’s budget subcommittee, School Superintendent Linda Dwight and subcommittee members SusanMary Redinger and Sharlene Cronin discussed reducing teaching staff to make the necessary budget cuts. Possibilities included having only three sections instead of four at each elementary grade and reducing departments at the Bromfield School from five teachers to four. These reductions would be in addition to the five teaching positions that were already cut in the past two years. Other possible staff cuts included reading and math tutors.

“Whatever we cut will be very hard to get back,” Redinger said, because future years will likely see calls for level-service budgets—but at the new, lower level created by this year’s cuts.

Looking for a less drastic way to make the substantial cuts, the subcommittee turned from personnel to capital projects. The School Committee had planned to use $150,000 in fiscal 2021 and another $150,000 in fiscal 2022 to replace all the hall lockers in the Bromfield School, many of which are battered and rusty and have broken doors. But, while money for the project had been allocated from the Devens fund, none of it had yet been spent because of the disrupted school year. (The Devens fund is money MassDevelopment pays the Harvard schools for educating students who live in Devens.)

“I’d rather have teachers than new lockers at Bromfield,” Redinger said, and Dwight and Cronin clearly agreed.

So, at Monday night’s School Committee meeting, the budget subcommittee presented its plan to bring the budget into balance by using $300,000 from the Devens fund for operating expenses rather than the lockers, plus taking about $40,000 from summer professional development programs for teachers. The revised budget will be brought to the School Committee for approval at its Jan. 25 meeting and sent on to FinCom the next day. FinCom granted the extension after the error was discovered.

In an email to the Press, Redinger summarized the problem she sees the schools facing. “The difficulty in a level-funded budget for the schools is that in order to compensate for the built-in increases in salaries, which account for almost 80% of our budget, significant cuts must be made. Even before the cost-of-living wage adjustments (COLAs) are added, salary increases require a 2% total net budget increase. Adding in a standard COLA results in a budget increase of 3% or more. In order to meet the 2.5% budget increase guideline set by the Finance Committee, the schools have had to trim the budget over the past several years even to the point of eliminating level-service items. The danger in making cuts to satisfy the level-funded budget directive this year is that a new baseline is established, and items that are eliminated now are not necessarily restored in the future unless the omnibus budget is increased by more than the 2.5% limit.”

One reason for the original error about last year’s school request was that the school budget in the fall warrant was shown as $17,301,708. But not all that money comes from the town of Harvard. The $3 million difference is money the schools receive from sources other than the town property taxes—federal Title I grants, grants from charitable trusts, fees from various school services such as the after-school Bridges program, and above all, from the Devens fund. Those amounts—called offsets—were also changing from one version of the budget to the next, adding to the confusion.

In a memo presented at Monday’s School Committee meeting, Dwight took responsibility for the original budgeting error and apologized for it, as she had also done at the budget subcommittee meeting. She and other members of the subcommittee agreed they need to set up a better budget process to prevent such confusion in future years.

“I don’t care if it’s an abacus with chalk marks,” Redinger said at the subcommittee meeting. “What we need is accuracy.”

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