2018-02-22 / Front Page

School board adopts $13.4M budget

Proposal would cost taxpayers 4.7% more than this year’s plan
BY TIM RIEL

Reflecting the biggest increase since 2006, the school committee adopted a $13.4 million budget last Thursday that would cost taxpayers 4.7 percent more than this year’s spending plan.

Committeewomen Sarah Baines and Sally Schott, however, questioned Chairman B.J. Whitehouse’s recommendation to adopt the budget earlier than required. The board had another workshop scheduled before its deadline, which is when both women had expected the motion.

“Why couldn’t we vote on it next week?” Schott asked.

“Because it’s not going to change,” Whitehouse replied. “There’s nothing else to cut.”

John Andrew, a parent and taxpayer, agreed with Baines and Schott. “You’re drawing a line in the sand that could work against you in June,” he said.

Ultimately, the measure passed 4-1 with Baines dissenting.

The revised spending plan, which represents a town appropriation of $11.77 million, is about 1 percent lower than the opening proposal unveiled by business manager Jane Littlefield in January.

The increase is driven primarily by tuition upticks that account for $262,000, an increase of just more than 9 percent, fueled by 39 graduating seniors and 52 incoming freshmen at the high schools, according to Littlefield’s predictions. Also, contractual raises for teachers and a $505,000 increase for special education is driving the increase. The school board will explain those special education mandates during a March 1 meeting.

Following that initial meeting, the school board directed the administration to scour the plan for reductions. Ken Duva, superintendent, did just that, returning at the Feb. 8 meeting with a series of cuts totaling $108,000.

The biggest proposed cut by Duva, however, was returned to the measure last week. Duva recommended saving $31,000 by eliminating the student assistance counselor, but parents and teachers spoke passionately about the position. The counselor is responsible for talking confidentially with students about personal issues not related to schoolwork, like drugs, divorce and depression.

“This is not a time in our society when we should take away any kind of counseling because of money,” Councilman Mike White, speaking as a grandparent, said during the Feb. 8 meeting.

While the position might not be identical, the money is returned for Duva to vet the program. One suggestion is having the counselor in the district semiweekly alongside a part-time social worker.

With the restored position reducing Duva’s cuts from $108,000 to $77,000, Baines recommended finding that difference in other areas.

“We should try to find a few light touches here and there to get that $30,000 back,” she said. “I’d feel more comfortable going to the town with that.”

Duva asked for guidance.

“Where should I look?” he asked. “We already cut supplies and materials. We’ve cut the transportation coordinator position. We have reduced our art teacher. We’ve taken away from professional development funds for administrators.”

Without a specific area in mind, Baines recommended due diligence by going line-by-line again.

“At the moment, we have made lessthana1percentcutona$12 million budget,” she said.

Committeewoman Agnes Filkens, however, said she “totally disagreed” with Baines.

“If we have a budget that has the kids’ interests at heart, we go to the town council and say that’s what it’s going to cost,” she said.

From there, Filkins continued, the councilors could be “the boogeymen” by demanding more cuts. “If we need something, we need it,” she said. “We need to say we need it. End of discussion.”

“I’m not very uncomfortable making any other cuts just to make cuts,” Whitehouse said. “This is the number that I think is responsible.”

The school board will present its adopted budget to the council March 8, two days after Town Administrator Andy Nota unveils the spending plan for the town side.

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