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School Committee Takes One Last Look At Upcoming Budget: Part 2

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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.

9:17 p.m. – The agenda went back to circuit breaker fun

School Committee Member Erika Kohl on Jan. 12, 2015
School Committee Member Erika Kohl on Jan. 12, 2015

ding, the reimbursement for unexpected special education expenses given by the state.

Under the current formula, for $100,000 of tuition, Westford pays $57,814 and the state pays $42,186 or 72 percent of the balance above 4 times of the foundation per-pupil budget provided by the state ($10,352)

Circuit breaker funding does not occur every year.

Purchases are made under Massachusetts General Law Chapter 30b. There are numerous oversights that occur throughout the year and are done immediately.

The School Finance Director, Town Accountant and Town Treasurer work closely together to maintain controls and ensure accuracy. Reports are periodically made to the School Committee.

School Committee Member Arthur Benoit said if any lessons had been learned from the situation that occurred recently in Chelmsford.

School Committee Chairman Tom Clay said that situation has been looked at.

School Committee Member Erika Kohl said that there are often overruns and how the balance works between overruns and less spending than expected for supplies and other items.

Superintendent Bill Olsen said that there are no holds on expenditures made for health and safety items, but if a payroll encumbrance is found, a hold is put on equipment replacement.

He noted there are always a few dollars left here and there since there are 1,100 budget line items and it’s not as much a science as a feel.

School Finance Director Kathy Auth said most new staff salaries are known for the next fiscal year by early November and the talked at length regarding oversight.

Clay said it would be appropriate at this point to go to the new requests for FY’ 16.

Olsen said that new funding would be required for the new explusion/exclusion law, new positions for a potential full-day kindergarten progam, an expanded Mandarin Chinese program at Westford Academy and other new full and partial positions adding up to $470,000 (or 5.5 Full-Time Equivalent positions added.)

School Committee Member Margaret Murray said that things could be done with less money. Particularly, the restorative justice line item would not require as much money as was allocated.

Kohl said that many budget items may not come to fruition, but there are many that will definitely be needed. Thus, she said that funding should be transferred to areas where it’s known that there is inadequate funding.

Clay asked if this meant the final amount of funding wouldn’t be returned if it wasn’t needed.

Kohl said yes and she’d like to make a motion.

Keele said he would oppose this, saying that it’s inappropriate to spend unused money in other areas.

Kohl said her proposal was not that, but to reallocate the money allocated for things likely not to be spent in places where the money is needed.

If things where the money is unlikely to be needed actually is needed, she says that money can come from maintenance funding which has been used in the past to make up for required spending that has been in a deficit.

Murray says the current system has worked successfully and she has a hard time going to the public with a 4.6% department budget increase while saying some areas have been under/overfunded.

Clay agreed, saying that things tend to balance and it’s more appropriate to give money back to taxpayers if it is not used rather than reallocating funding.

Kohl asked if the public would be concerned if funding was requested for “what-ifs.”

Keele said the committee has stated to the superintendent that we will be watching this closely and it will not be wasted and he’s under clear instructions that the money is going back to the general fund if it is not spent or needed.

Keele appreciated Kohl’s idea, but that it’s more transparent to do things in the current manner.

School Committee Member Arthur Benoit understood where Kohl is coming from since certain things are routinely not done due to budget shortfalls.

Then there was confusion between Clay and Kohl over her idea and Olsen said these should be stand-alone requests to ensure greater oversight and that unfunded mandates played a role in this.

School Committee Member Terrance Ryan asked if this will happen every year.

Kohl’s motion to move money to maintenance spending failed 2-5-0, with Benoit and Kohl voting in support.

Murray then said that she could not support $55,000 for the new exclusionary/expulsionary law since money could be used from the extraordinary funding reserve account.

Olsen said that that could not happen since that funding is only for things that are unforeseen while this is foreseen since it’s known the law is coming.

Keele made a motion to support the superintendent’s proposed budget and talked about Proposition 2 ½ and noted it’s 2.5 percent plus growth that there is light on the horizon regarding economic growth.

He noted that growth might potentially bring enhancements rather than just level services like in previous years. However, schools have to balance with the rest of the town regarding budgeting and he noted that it’s not often that the town manager and superintendent can come together with a solid number they can both agree on.

Keele said that the town manager and Finance Committee have been supporters of the schools and this figure not only maintains what Westford has, but adds some enhancements and can be justified to the committee’s constituents.

Finance Committee Chairman Mark Kost came to the microphone, and then then Murray asked about municipal growth.

Kost said that Westford’s property values grew by approximately $2 million due to new construction.

Murray noted concern regarding adding personnel for special education that was not fully utilized and reiterated concern regarding the $55,000 figure.

Clay said he respected Murray’s opinion, but he respected Olsen’s estimate.

Olsen said that the added new personnel for special education were vital.

9:53 p.m. – Kost said that Town Finance Director Dan O’Donnell should be consulted regarding the emergency reserve funding.

He also said that the town manager doesn’t necessarily support or not support any part of the budget.

Then he said that increased 4.5 percent yearly increases of something that makes up 55 percent of the town budget every year is not sustainable.

Keele said it makes sense not to expect 4.5 every year. He said it’s good to scale back during tough years and during his first year he asked for a $1.3 million cut.

He said that the town manager should be asked on whether she supports this budget and he noted there is a pretty good consensus among everyone in town on this budget figure and now is the time to defend that figure.

Murray said that in previous years the budget process was more painful. She asked if there was any views over what future increases or decreases would be.

Kost said it depends on level expenses or level services in each department. Each department head has to assess which route to go down and then that is assessed at town hall.

School Committee Member Terrance Ryan said that specific needs are being addressed. He noted it is a lot of money, but it’s money well spent.

School Committee Member Arthur Benoit offered an amendment to Keele’s motion that Kathy Auth be allowed to see if emergency reserve funding could be used.

Keele joked, “the thing we know about that we don’t expect?”

Clay then said this could be dealt with later and Keele said if Benoit votes for this, he can re-open the discussion later and that the main goal should be providing a number for the Finance Committee for Thursday.

Olsen said that Keele’s motion is procedurally clean.

The amendment didn’t get a second.

School Committee Member Erika Kohl asked if the $55,000 for the exclusionary/expulsionary line item would be a salary, Olsen said it could be for a number of things.

She then asked if it was for a student that was a safety risk. Olsen said it would be more than likely under Massachusetts General Law Chapter 252.

Kohl continued, with Clay saying that the schools would have to meet the obligations of this legislation.

Kohl asked if the School Committee could vote upon how this money could be spent when if the money is needed.

Several School Committee members said it would be inappropriate to tell the superintendent how to spend the money after it had been approved.

Kohl felt uncomfortable not knowing what the money would be spent for. Others said it would be used as a placeholder.

Kohl asked if how it would be used could be addressed at a future meeting.

Discussion continued with Olsen saying that it takes several years to get more details on what is needed for new unfunded state mandates.

Kohl then talked about technology funding and that she was not clear how this was being spent even though she had asked for this information for a year.

Clay and Kohl continued.

Olsen said the schools are trying to prioritize needs and asked Kohl to have confidence that the right thing would be done.

Benoit said that devices like tablets would be a necessity once Common Core becomes a reality.

School Committee Member Angela Harkness said that the recommendations given by the experts should be supported.

Murray said that since it was January, it would probably be too late to make decisions on these things, but Assistant Superintendent Kerry Clery said those decisions happen throughout the year.

Harkness reiterated her point.

Kohl said she would abstain since she wanted additional information.  Murray said she should ask her questions, Kohl asked about adding a .4 FTE for a curriculum coordinator position and whether this person would do teaching, adding a Mandarin 3 class when there were only seven students in Mandarin 2 and other items.

Olsen said it’s important to allow those students to progress.

Kohl asked if it might be better to put it into middle schools.

Olsen said he’d start it in kindergarten if the resources.

The curriculum coordinator would also be doing some teaching, as is currently the case.

There was a .1 FTE not needed at Westford Academy, so that funding was reallocated.

Kohl then asked if salary steps had been addressed and if there is any trend for retiring staff members and savings that come from their steps being reallocated.

Auth said more time was needed, Olsen said that people were pleased with the teachers’ contract.

Kohl said that Westford is out-of-whack regarding long term substitutes. Auth said that Westford is actually similar to other districts, but reporting is different.

Auth said there were not a lot of paid leaves of absence recently. However it had been approximately $60,000 in previous years.

The state is working on that tool that looks at reporting, but time is still needed for it.

The motion passed 6-0-1.

Olsen wanted to make sure it was noted that the increase is actually 4.55, not 4.6 percent.

10:23 p.m. – Olsen asked to reconvene the naming committee. This was approved unanimously. A pilot stipend approval that would require no additional funding was approved unanimously.

Murray asked if a minimum number of students were required to get funding for a club.

10:25 p.m. – Payroll warrants were approved. Several sets of minutes were approved. One set of minutes had to be reconsidered since there were several abstentions.

10:27 p.m. – A personnel update was given. The meeting was almost adjourned, but Secretary Nina Mangan noted that more payroll warrants needed to be approved.

They were approved. The meeting adjourned at 10:29 p.m.