2018-03-15 / Front Page

Duva presents budget to councilors

$12.8M plan would have 5.1% increase to taxpayers
BY TIM RIEL

The school department last Thursday presented its proposed budget for fiscal year 2018-19 to the town council, a $12.78 million measure that represents a $639,013 increase from the current year.

The town appropriation, which represents the burden on the taxpayers, is proposed at $11.77 million, a 5.1 percent increase. Although it is the largest uptick in a decade, this plan is required to continue operating the schools at their current award-winning level, said Superintendent Ken Duva.

“We are at an increase right now that is necessary to provide an appropriate education to our students,” he said.

According to Duva, this budget was drafted to support the district’s core values, which includes rigorous curricula, innovative technology and safe infrastructure.

Moreover, it allows students and teachers to work together in a personalized environment, he said.

“There’s a lot of work that we have been doing within our strategic plan that is possible because of our community and its support,” he said. “Each year, we keep doing better and better.”

He was referring to the recognition bestowed upon Melrose School, a National Blue Ribbon candidate with three consecutive years with a commended designation, the highest achievements a school can receive from the federal and state education departments, respectively. Lawn School also was honored with the commended status during the last two academic years.

Duva said these honors have resulted in families moving to town so their children can attend the schools, especially those with developmental disabilities.

“That’s great,” he said. “We want all students here. And there’s a reason why that’s happening. It’s happening because they know we have great programs.”

He continued, “When you come here, we really get to know your children. No matter what their needs are. We know all our children, and families like that. This is something we’re proud of, but it does come with a cost.”

The main reasons for the increased budget are contractual raises for teachers, increased high school tuition and a larger special education enrollment.

There are about 17 students per teacher at the elementary school and 18 students per teacher at Lawn. The projected enrollment for the upcoming school year is 263 students at Melrose, a decrease of nine, and 222 students at Lawn, an increase of four. The enrollment rate in the last decade has remained relatively flat.

“We’re pretty much around that 500 mark,” Duva said. “Our student population is not decreasing.”

As for tuition, there will be eight more students, from 183 to 191, attending public or charter high schools in 2018-19, which costs between $14,000 and $15,000 per pupil. Tuition, which is up 9.1 percent, accounts for one-quarter of the district’s entire budget.

As for special education, the equivalent of nearly four staff members were added to the budget, some of which was paid for by grants in previous years, is fueling a $3.15 million expense. That represents an uptick of $504,700, or an increase of 19.1 percent.

For special education, there were 67 students enrolled at Melrose and Lawn, along with seven students who are being educated out of district. That includes three adults; the law mandates the district continue teaching special education students until their 21st birthday, if needed.

Duva’s hour-long presentation was followed by a handful of questions, which mainly were from the council’s lone Republican, Blake Dickinson.

First, he wanted to know why the school committee was not using its $281,425 capital surplus for its proposed capital plan, which is separate from the bond referendum planned for school repairs. (The committee did commit $225,848 from its reserve to lower the operating budget.)

“What’s the rationale for not paying for this year’s capital using that money?” Dickinson asked.

In response, Duva said that money is set aside for emergencies. He used leaking roofs as an example. Dickinson, however, said if the roofs start leaking, the school committee does not need emergency funds because the town owns the buildings.

“Ultimately, the town is responsible for any capital liabilities that you have,” he said. “Any risk that you have, the town of Jamestown is responsible for. The buildings themselves, we are liable for. That risk really is ours.”

Town Administrator Andy Nota defended the surplus, saying the committee needs to be careful how it spends capital money because of the upcoming bond referendum, which would be reimbursable by about 40 percent.

“We should be strategic about which particular funds we look to pull back,” he said. “They might cost us money in the long run.”

Both sides agreed unfunded state mandates also are a big burden on the town.

“That state burdens us with a lot of requirements and they give us very little money,” said Dickinson, pointing to $505,000 projected in state aid.

“I share that concern with you,” Duva said.

In the end, no direction was given to the school board.

“It’s always challenging to make changes to a school budget because we know that any reduction does have an impact on the children,” he said.

School committee Chairman B.J. Whitehouse defended the board’s actions when it cut about $82,000 from the plan before taking it to the council.

“It was lean when we got it,” he said. “And we did our best to be fiscally responsible. I believe we did.”

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