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Question of the Week: School Candidates Discuss Level-Service Budget

Has the level-service budget's time come and gone? Schools candidates explore the issue.

What do you think of the Warrant Committee insisting on a "level service" budget from the school department each year? Since needs and requirements change from year-to-year, is a "level service" budget meaningful in providing the best education to Belmont students? Is there a better approach to funding Belmont schools or do you believe the current system does the job?

Pascha Griffiths

What do you think of the Warrant Committee insisting on a "level service" budget from the school department each year? Since needs and requirements change from year-to-year, is a "level service" budget meaningful in providing the best education to Belmont students? Is there a better approach to funding Belmont schools or do you believe the current system does the job? 

First, let’s begin with some definitions. A “level services” budget delivers in the upcoming year exactly the same services that were delivered the previous year. This is different from a “level funding” budget, which would allocate the same amount of money each year, but due to rising costs would automatically create service cuts. This is also different from an “available revenue” budget, which is based on the town’s estimate of the money we will have, which could be more or less than “level services.”

The concept of a “level services” budget is both useful and problematic. “Level services” is a useful concept because it allows the town to understand exactly how much money it costs to deliver the same services year after year. The “level services” budget is problematic, however, because it can be inflexible. For example, in 2012 there was a significant rise in the number of incoming kindergarteners at the new Wellington School. A strict adherence to the “level services” budget would have maintained the number of teachers, regardless of the change in student population.

However, school committee policy, as well as widely accepted best practices, prescribe smaller class sizes for younger grades, so naturally a kindergarten teacher was added. School budgets, by necessity, must be flexible. A “level services” budget is a tool that we must evaluate intelligently to determine how it can best serve our town. If we look at the school budgets for the past 10 years, the sad truth is that there have been many accumulated service cuts. The “level services” school budget today does not deliver the exact same services that it did 10 years ago – that is, our baseline keeps declining. Some services have disappeared. Some services are now covered by user fees or parent fund raising.

While “level services” is a valuable tool, it can provide a narrow view of the changes in our school system over time because it focuses so closely on year to year changes and not multi-year changes. We must begin to think outside the box about how we fund our schools. Innovations can change the way we educate children, and in some cases reduce the associated costs – but we must be open to innovation and not locked into delivering exactly the same “level services” in the same way year after year. I would like to create a Grants Task Force to look at the opportunities for grant-funded innovation projects for our schools. I would also like to explore appropriately implemented corporate sponsorship and naming opportunities as a way of increasing the funding pie.

Additionally, I have discussed funding with many Belmont residents and there are great ideas out there; let’s find new ways to bring people together and make these ideas happen. Ultimately, we need to find sources of revenue that bring new money into Belmont, and not just keep tapping our limited resources within Belmont.

Anne Lougee

Comparing a level service budget to revenue that is available can be an informative exercise, especially if your services don’t change much from year to year. Doing so can help you identify areas that need to be trimmed if the revenue comes up short, or it can help you focus on where you might place additional resources to expand or enhance your services.

The needs and requirements of a school system, however, do change from year to year. They change with the specific population of students and staff; they change with the addition of external requirements (including mandates, unfunded and otherwise); and they change when the overall goal of the system is to achieve continuous improvement.

The delivery of educational instruction and specialized services is a fluid process, one that assumes and incorporates this need for continuous change. In the past decade, the rate of increase to the cost of delivering educational services (particularly the increase in health insurance premiums and special education services) has outpaced the 2.5 percent increase in town-based revenues, as well as the funds awarded by the state. Many of these rapidly escalating costs are both volatile and mandatory. The BPS is required by state and federal law to pay special education costs, for example, but the exact level of these costs each year depends on the specific student population within the Belmont community.

Financial necessity has, repeatedly, driven many changes to how the BPS delivers its services, in addition to how some of those services are funded. Such restructuring and innovation, as we have seen, can generate good results. It is not, however, particularly instructive to the administration, or to the school committee, to generate a level-service budget in order to assess the needs of the system, and then align those needs with the available revenue. Similarly, were the available revenue to increase by $500,000, it would not be essential to analysis and decision making to have first generated a level-service budget.

Sound financial planning for the BPS involves multiple steps. It involves having multi-year financial plans. It involves having sound goals-based educational programming grounded in community priorities. It involves program-based budgeting. The school committee and administration have made excellent progress on each of these improvements in financial planning in recent years and should commit to their continued implementation.

Matt Sullivan

All town departments are required to give a "level service" budget to the Warrant Committee. However, when the School Committee submits its "level service" budget it does contain the new hires for the following year, to keep up with increasing enrollment. Therefore the School Committee isn't exactly submitting a level funded budget. I think all town departments should be on a level playing field.  

As I mentioned before in reply to the Belmont Citizen Herald, the school department and the School Committee need to get earnest about writing grants to support various educational initiatives. The town also plays a part in this. They need to become more business friendly and encourage new business to get established in town. They need to be welcoming rather than make them jump through hoops. New business equals more tax money for the town. 

In closing, I think it's important for everyone to realize that the town needs to work together to maintain the quality of education and all town services.

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