The following is a transcript from the Dec. 15, 2014 Westford School Committee meeting. For other parts of the meeting, click here.
8:29 p.m. – There were no reports from Superintendent Bill Olsen. The agenda then went to a discussion on the budget.
School Committee Member Tom Clay presented a summary regarding financial controls and practices to avoid auditing errors experienced by nearby towns.
Olsen said that the School Committee Reserve Fund has only been used three times in thirty years due to quality work in the past.
School Finance Director Kathy Auth then discussed an overview of funding of the Fiscal Year ’15 budget, Fiscal Year ’16 proposed budget and the Fiscal Year ’14 actual spend funds.
Most of the funding is spent in professional salaries, the FY’ 14 actual spend funds also included capital spending not initially appropriated.
School Committee Member Margaret Murray asked for a greater analysis of the distribution of professional salaries, Auth said that the majority of that funding went to classroom teacher salaries.
Clay said this was guided by student to teacher ratio and that currently the town is paying below benchmarks.
In categories of professional salaries other than classroom instructor salaries, increases have been fairly flat.
Clay said that increased investment in classroom teacher salaries is a good investment.
Olsen said curriculum coordinators are critical positions.
School Committee Member Erika Kohl asked what choices needed to be made.
Clay said that teacher specialist salaries would be a choice, although classroom instructor salaries will increase to preserve student to teacher ratios.
Auth said most clerical salaries are toward building administration.
Olsen said that there are also state level benchmarks regarding efficiency and additional data wil be provided.
In the “other salaries” section, funding is dominated by special education staff and custodial staff.
Clay said there was some analysis on that side compared to other communities and Westford was at or below benchmarks.
Five special education teacher assistants will be added in FY’ 16 and a contract agreement had been reached with assistants, both raised funding in that area.
Olsen then talked about custodial schedules, saying fewer custodians are in place but they’re more efficient due to better scheduling and better equipment.
8:47 p.m. – There was then discussion about teacher assistant levels, which are critical to keeping special education students in-house, which saves money for the department.
Auth then went over contracted services, with the largest item there being transportation.
In contracted services, special education is underbudgeted. There are also struggles in building maintenance, which also has far lower budgeted figures versus what is actually spent.
Clay then talked about how things are purchased and he noted that it’s very strange that several line items are deliberately underbudgeted while payroll salaries are overbudgeted.
However, he learned it was a deliberate choice as overbudgeting payroll salaries creates a process that needs to be followed with the town.
Auth then added that turnover can’t be fully predicted. She said it wasn’t overbudgeting, but budgeting on current staffing.
Olsen said that portion of the budget had the most fluidity of any part of the budget.
Kohl wanted to reiterate that it’s not actually overbudgeting, it’s just budgeting assuming that no staff members are leaving. Eventually the turnover will become smaller, and Westford is becoming stable regarding retirees in its schools.
School Committee Member Terrance Ryan asked if lower gas prices were helping. Auth said that it was helping in regard to vans, although there are escalation and de-escalation clauses in the bus contracts related to when contracts are made.
School Committee Member Margaret Murray talked about balance and deliberate overbudgeting and underbudgeting and said she never knew Town Meeting approval was needed for funds needed over budget in those area.
She said that if the overbudgeting and underbudgeting was also due to retirements and it should be looked at since it’s known that some items are overbudgeted and some are underbudgeted.
Auth said that regular turnover in addition to retirements impact the figure.
She then said that .2 Full Time Equivalent positions have been dropped between FY’ 15 and FY’ 16 regarding what’s in place.
Olsen said that some staff members have severe health concerns that impact these figures and it’s impossible to predict with any certainty.
School Committee Member Arthur Benoit said it would be good to look at what’s given up to pay for extreme circumstances, like a boiler that needed to be replaced due to emergency in recent years.
Regarding instructional supplies, most of that are things directly under the authority of the school principals and the superintendent.
Building maintenance is chronically underfunded.
Westford always falls at or below state average in most spending categories.
Olsen said that per-pupil supply allocations have not increased in seven years.
Regarding “other expenses,” the largest allocation was out-of-district tuitions.
The FY’ 16 estimated appropriation will be over $3 million and it’s based on a “worst-case scenario”
Kohl asked if circuit breaker funds would be used in that area, Auth said it would not be assumed that circuit breaker would be needed, that circuit breaker funding received in FY’ 15 would be rolled over as needed.
There was then a discussion of fees in other towns. Auth said this information came from a website called Superednet.com. She said it was all over the place.
An increase in the athletic fee is recommended to get up to a more sustainable level as it hasn’t been updated in approximately a decade.
That fee covers all non-payroll expenses and some coaching salaries.
A higher early arrival option for elementary schools is also proposed.
With a hike of $50 in each sport, it would raise approximately $50,000.
9:15 p.m. – School Committee member David Keele noted the fees only cover costs.
Murray noted that revenues and expenses are part of budgetary nomenclature and that an override vote that lost several years ago led to fees of over $1,000 for some families.
Keele said that the word revenue leads to people think that the fees are incomes when it’s just to cover expenses.
School Committee Member Angela Harkness asked about a cap for multi-sport athletes since the culture almost requires extra-curricular activities so families with multi-sport athletes aren’t faced with difficult choices. She said there would be a point where not having a cap wouldn’t make sense.
Olsen said he would talk with Westford Academy Athletic Director Dan Twomey over the fee.
School Committee Member Terrance Ryan asked if there was a cap on how many kids in middle school can play sports.
School Committee Member Arthur Benoit said that any of these fees would be crippling for familes with triplets and that there should be a cap for families.
School Committee Chairman Tom Clay said that caps may cause shortfalls that raise fees for others.
Harkness asked if the shortfalls could be analyzed.
Benoit then said it would be good to see what fees cover.
Keele noted that a kid will never be denied regardless of fees.
Clay said that there will be another meeting to discuss fund balances, but there was a brief discussion about moving current circuit breaker funding forward, with Auth saying the relationship of receipts to expenditures, excluding circuit breakers will be similar between FY’ 15 and FY’ 16.
Approximately $1.1 million was left in the circuit breaker funding in June 2014.
9:30 p.m. – Kohl then asked about School Choice students, Auth said that it will become a risky situation in FY’ 17 and said that in FY’ 15 and FY’16 there was a brought forward balance that will be gone by FY’ 17.
An increase in School Choice students or other options would be needed to meet an estimated $500,000 shortfall in that area.
Auth said she was uncomfortable with that shortfall.
Clay asked about the funding, with Auth saying that several staff members have been moved into the School Choice program. In FY’ 17, those positions may not be needed.
Murray then asked about the carry forward figures.
The budget will be tabled for another upcoming discussion.
9:34 p.m. – Payroll warrants were approved, minutes were approved with an amendment.
9:36 p.m. – There are several departures among the cafeteria staff at Westford Academy, although all of the departures are coincidental.
The meeting was adjourned to Executive Session, not to return to public session.