School Budget Shortfall 'Manageable'
Preliminary look at schools shows a $509K gap to reach level-service gap.
One year ago, the word being used to describe the financial outlook of the Belmont Public Schools was "dire."
The schools' budget gap – the difference between revenue in town coffers directed to schools and the amount needed to provide the same level of education as in the previous year – in January 2011 was more than $2 million, an amount that caused people to gasp when it was announced and result in the formation of a citizens group to rally residents behind adequate education funding.
Tuesday, Jan. 10, at the first meeting of the Belmont School Committee in the new year, the word associated with this year's budget shortfall is "do-able."
In fact, the consensus of school and town officials is that they are confident that the difference will be closed without the need for a "crisis" in the town.
"I do believe we have an opportunity to narrow the gap signficantly quite soon since the town and schools have the same goal of providing level services," said Belmont School Superintendent Thomas Kingston.
As with the town budget that was released Monday, June 10, a first look at Belmont School Department's fiscal 2013 budget is encouraging.
Unlike January 2011, health care costs are stable and expected state education aid will come to the town at the same rate as a year ago, the deficit facing Belmont is about a quarter of last year's shortfall.
According to revenue and fixed cost figures developed by town and school financial personnel, schools will see available revenues of $42.7 million, a 2.8 percent, or $1.2 million, increase from fiscal '12.
Kingston said a level services budget for the coming year is $43.2 million, about 4 percent more than the previous year.
The resulting deficit gap that the schools need to reach the basic level service budget is roughly $509,000.
"While half a million dollars is still a significant amount, we can see how we can reach a level services budget without really effecting education," said Laurie Graham, chairwoman of the Belmont School Committee, after the meeting.
Kingston noted that the half million dollar deficit is based on a number of technical assumptions that include health insurance expenditures being the same as the previous year, student enrollment staying unchanged at approximately 4,000 student and maintaining the current fee structure for user fees.
Drop in Special Ed costs
But the largest assumption in the level services budget is a drop of nearly $250,000 in special education expenditures, for outplacement tuitions and transportation costs.
Kingston said that he is confident that information provided to the schools will allow the district to see the drop in the line items but also acknowledged that those numbers "could immediately jump" with the arrival of just one or two special education students enter the district.
"We would have a moral duty to serve their needs," said Kingston.
The school department has created a list of areas that will be cut to close the gap: reducing nearly six teaching positions, cutting instructional expenses and material across the system, limit maintenance and repairs, and transfer the cost of coaching stipends and utility charges to revolving accounts.
"It is nothing like amputation but does involve bleeding to the schools," said Kingston.
Yet both the board of Selectmen and members of the School Committee have noted that those cuts will likely be restored by the time the Town Meeting takes up the budget in May.
The level service priorities will be in restoring teaching positions then setting aside funds for new instructional expenses and material.
But even if the schools receive the entire amount need to fill the gap, the schools will cut the equivilent of 1.3 teaching positions in the High School. But that is due to an expected reduction in class sizes and revamping class schedules, said Kingston.
As for being prepared for the real opportunity that the schools are provided additional revenue beyond level funding – "manna from heaven," as described by Kingston – the school department has its eyes on a $60,000 Kindergarten through 5th grade math program to replace the current system that is nearing 20 years of service.
The next priority is to add four positions to the Middle School to reduce class size at $260,000.
"Over the past decade, the system has seen an erosion in important areas," said School Committee member Anne Lougee, noting that this could be the year where the district can make repairs to the damage.
The school budget was presented to the Warrant Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 11, to begin the review process.