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School Committee Takes One Last Look At Upcoming Budget: Part 1

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The following is part of a transcript from the Jan. 12, 2015 Westford School Committee meeting. For links to the rest of the meeting, click here.

7:58 p.m. – The agenda then went to the school budget, an item that has been discussed at several recent meetings.

Tonight’s discussion began with a look at special education appropriation, with details about Westford Academy spending, circuit breaker funding and a repost of the superintendent’s proposed budget.

School Committee Member Tom Clay on Jan. 15, 2015
School Committee Member Tom Clay on Jan. 15, 2015

Special Education Coordinator Courtney Moran then began her overview on the upcoming special education budget.

It had changed from last week, an indication of how often things can change with special education.

She noted that there are definite students that will be served next year and some that may be pending.

April 1 is a cutoff date regarding requirements for special education students moving into the school district.

Following April 1, the schools are not responsible until the next fiscal year if the student coming from a private school or home school. However, this does not impact students coming from collaborative placements or out-of-state students. State agencies can also force placements.

While Moran hopes the amount of money needed doesn’t move significantly, she realizes that the situation is fluid.

Every time a placement is made, a purchase order is made to ensure no surprises. Circuit breaker funding is applied for once expenses exceed four times the excepted amount for specific students.

Currently circuit breaker reimbursement from the state is at 72 percent.

Last year Westford got extraordinary relief in March, approximately $235,000 from the state’s free cash, due to unexpected expenses.

School Department Budget Director Kathy Auth said that the state can give extraordinary support when expenses rise about 20 percent of what was expected.

Auth reiterated that it is a very fluid budget environment.  Approximately $400,000 in planned savings have not materialized, but things are on part with expectations from November. Approximately $1.1 to $1.4 million will be carried over to future fiscal years.

School Committee Chairman Tom Clay asked if there were any questions regarding the funding figure.

School Committee Member Erika Kohl asked if $300,000 was being used from circuit breaker funding. Auth said that it’s too soon to be sure, although she tries not to use circuit breaker if possible.

Kohl expressed appreciation to Auth and Moran regarding their collaboration and asked about funding for full-day kindergarten.

Superintendent Bill Olsen said another month would be needed regarding potential enrollment for full-day kindergarten and whether a special education class would be provided.

He said it’s still too soon if the full-day kindergarten decision to be made.

Moran agreed that a March/April timeframe would be ideal, and that some special education students might be coming from half-day classes.

Kohl also asked about budget line items for special education teacher assistants and asked if they ever “graduate.”

Moran said they do, but it often depends on the students.

Kohl then asked about the $45,000 amount for an out-of-district liaison and whether it was just salary or salary and other things since it’s a part-time position.

Auth said that it would include a computer. Moran said that position has a set amount of days in the summer since out-of-district placement happens often in the summer.

Olsen said that this position is extraordinarily important to serve the needs of students by creating efficiency in other areas for other staff members.

Kohl asked if this would remove costs elsewhere in the budget.

Olsen said it was more about giving more timely service for students in the district.

Clay said the things to be taken into account whether this position was needed and if the amount requested for this position was a fair-market value.

School Committee Member Arthur Benoit asked how much was allocated for out-of-district placements and whether anything was being paid back.

Auth said that pre-payment for out-of-district placement and fewer emergencies have helped although she said the schools are not scaling back, but rather just aren’t aiming for additional circuit breaker money.

Benoit asked if it was savings, Auth said it was “shifting,” with Auth and Olsen explaining that limited amounts of funds were able to be spent for pre-paid enrollment.

Murray then said that in multiple years, one-on-one instructors had been hired, and she asked if the population had greatly increased to necessitate this level of hiring and if it was disproportionate to the population the town has.

Moran said it’s more about severity of student needs rather than the number of students.

Murray then said that there is a way to break down severity and asked if reports could be given on that so the School Committee could present information to members of the public upon request.

She asked if it could be provided on a three-year rolling notice.

Olsen said that this information is inside the appendix of the budget presentation from November.

Murray said it should be taken out of the appendix since there is a lot of information there.

Olsen said that seven years of special education enrollment is included.

8:29 p.m. – School Committee Member Angela Harkness said that the figures aren’t as revealing as the level of service given as five kids in one year may cost more than ten kids in another year due to different needs.

Clay said the information is open to the public and noted that the requests from the kids are what determines funding requests.

Moran then talked more about the level of need. Olsen then talked about state law related to what is required.

Murray then asked if a one-on-one aide is required that it should be included in reporting from the state so members of the public would better understand the issue.

Clay asked if there were any other questions. School Committee Member Terrance Ryan asked about the difference between “definite” students and “possible” students.

Moran and Auth said the “possible” students don’t include unknown students that aren’t projected, including students that might be coming or leaving town without notice.