As Finance Committee members review budget requests from town department heads, this month, they are taking a penetrating look at the School Department.
School Committee members are seeking a $3 million override of Proposition 2 1/2 to cover a 6 percent gap in teachers salaries as compared to teachers salaries in comparable communities. Proposition 2 1/2 is a state law that prohobits annual property tax increases of more than 2.5 percent plus new growth. An override of the law requires a Town Meeting vote and a ballot box question.
Finance Committee members asked numerous questions of school officials at the Jan. 12 Budget Hearing. Here are highlights with the responses.
Q. Please elaborate on the specific initiatives that have been added that require additional staffing or expenses.
A. Change in standards require curriculum adjustments/upgrades.
- We were required to add 1.0 English Language Learner (ELL) Teachers this year, which is being financially recognized in the FY18 budget. In addition to the influx of ELL enrollment, the DESE regulations have required us to provide services to ELLs for longer periods of time than in previous years.
- 2017 requirement for research-based anti-drug curriculum
- Requirement for all state testing to be done online in 2019 (increased devices & infrastructure upgrades). -For students who have been identified as homeless under McKinney Vento Homeless Education Act, students have the right to attend their “school of origin”. This right requires the District to either 1) provide a bus pass free of charge and/or 2) provide specialized specialized transportation (50/50 fiscal responsibility with other district) in order for students to attend their school of origin. Students qualifying under McKinney-Vento also have rights to a free and reduced lunch and Title I services.
- We continue to budget funds to address Chapter 222 (expulsion/exclusion) statute.
- With the new substance abuse law, we will be required to provide a verbal screening to students in two grade levels (one at middle school and one at high school), which may have financial implications for nurses/staff to conduct the screenings.
Q. How are we planning for the potential increase in students with the anticipated 500+ new units of housing in Westford?
A. The additional housing units will not have an impact on the school budget in fiscal 2018 (begins July 1). We anticipate that the impact will begin in fiscal 2019. This housing increase may require additional staffing, instructional and custodial supplies, technology, school buses, etc. Additionally, we will be developing redistricting plans for the elementary and middle school grades.
Q. (Out of district) tuition went down 6.5 percent compared to fiscal 2017 budget. Is this because special ed offset went up? What is this offset?
The budgeted use of circuit breaker funds in the fiscal 2018 budget has gone up compared to fiscal 2017 by $158,888, due to an expected increase in receipts during fiscal 2017. In addition, the projected tuition expense for fiscal 2018 has gone down slightly compared to the projection that was done for the fiscal 2017 budget. These two factors combine to result in an overall decrease in the Out of District Tuition budget of $200,000.
The circuit breaker program provides additional state funding to districts for the education of high-cost special education students. The threshold for eligibility is tied to four times the state average foundation budget per pupil with the state reimbursing up to 75 percent of the costs above that threshold in the following year (subject to appropriation by the legislature).
Districts are allowed to spend the reimbursement on special needs costs in the year of receipt or in the year following, but may not carry it over to any later years. We feel it is good practice from a budgeting standpoint to try to retain the circuit breaker receipts from year one to use as a budget offset in year two. Since we expect to receive $1,737,930 during fiscal 2017, that is the budget offset that is being used for fiscal 2018.
Here is a link to a page on the DESE website called “A Primer on Financial Aspects of Special Education” that explains this and other aspects of special education financing.
Q. Please provide a quick overview on what kind of technology expenses run thru school accounts and what kind of technology expenses related to the schools run thru the town’s accounts.
A. The town Technology Department (Town IT) pays town specific expenses and certain expenses that are shared by town and school. Items that are just for the schools are generally paid by the School Department directly. Where a significant portion of a shared expense is easily identified as being for the benefit of the schools, town IT will pay the invoice and then transfer the cost to the School Department via an inter-departmental transfer (cross-charge). The two main areas of benefit for which costs are not allocated from town IT to the schools are town IT’s staff costs and the costs associated with maintaining the virtualized server environment.
The school budget includes technology and network costs in functions 1450, 4400, and 4450. Instructional technology expenses that are funded by the appropriation to the School Department (new hardware and instructional software) are included in functions 2451 to 2455. The town’s capital appropriation for computer replacements is budgeted for by the town’s technology director in consultation with School Department personnel, and is not included in the school department budget documents. However, these costs are included in the end of year report that we file with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education each year.
Function 1450 includes the cost of database and software licenses for the School Department including Munis (accounting and HR software, cross-charge from town IT), iPass (student information management software), and eSped (student support services software). The fiscal 2018 estimates for these items increased by $4,300 over fiscal 2017.
Function 4400 includes the cost of First Class (website and email, cross-charge), Blackboard Connect (emergency communication software), antivirus software (cross-charge) and content filter software. This function also includes the cost of the high speed internet lines for each location that have become necessary in recent years to keep up with the curriculum needs of the system as outlined in our technology plan. Estimated fiscal 2018 costs for many of these items are provided to us by the town technology director, taking into consideration any changes that may be required for next year. The combined fiscal 2018 estimates for these items increased by $15,000 over fiscal 2017.
Function 4450 includes the salary costs of the School Department’s four technicians, as well as repair and maintenance funds for the day-to-day needs of our technology assets.
Q. Are there two new Special Ed Teaching Assistants (preschool) or four (with the third and fourth in other grades?
A. There are four new special education teaching assistants included as new requests for fiscal 2018. Two will be assigned to the new classroom that is being created in the preschool. The other two positions are for contingency teaching assistants. These positions will be staffed if necessary to provide services to children who move into Westford or current students who may be identified as needing special education services.
Q. Last year was a struggle to budget within the Town Manager guidelines. This year, the first pass was within the guidelines. What is the difference between the two years?
A. There were more staff requested last year. Additionally, we have been able to realize some additional utility savings along with savings in our bus transportation contract.
Follow Joyce Pellino Crane on Twitter @joypellinocrane.