The school committee unanimously approved the $46.1 million spending plan Thursday night, one week after the public received its first look at the proposal.
Director of Administration and Finance Ron Tarro provided a quick recap of the document at the start of Thursday’s meeting. The plan includes an overall expenditure increase of $1.415 million or roughly 3.17 percent more than the current year.
Mr. Tarro said pension costs are on the rise for teachers and other school staff as are medical costs. Mr. Tarro said that while medical insurance has been trending up at about 8 percent annually, the district has budgeted a 5 percent bump based on recent claims history.
Transportation costs are up as well, Mr. Tarro said, as are special education costs. Additionally, the budget includes place-holder funds for a potential but yet-to-be-ironed out all-day kindergarten program along with $125,000 to $140,000 for materials related to implementation of common core.
Mr. Tarro said the district is locked in on utilities with a contract though the district has saved money in recent years by switching to gas and energy efficient lighting.
The budget as presented publicly on Feb. 14 also includes $579,000 (2 percent) in salary increases and $559,000 (5.5 percent) in benefit increases though these figures weren’t discussed openly as negotiations remain underway between district officials and unions representing local teachers and custodians.
The expenditure increase is slated to be offset, in part, by about $984,000 in revenue through an accelerated, on-going implementation of a statewide education funding formula though school surplus funds and Medicaid reimbursement are expected to be down.
Another $275,000 cost, meanwhile, is slated for capital reserves to fund technology. School Superintendent Michael Messore said the district needs to start thinking ahead to 2015 when a new, online assessment will be mandated and curriculum is being written with technology.
Mr. Tarro said the current technology investment is “more important than ever before.”
The bottom line? Another $1.058 million in taxpayer funds or an additional 2.37 percent, total.
School committee member Scott Fuller questioned if the district could save money by exploring other healthcare options, such as HSA plans.
Mr. Tarro said the district looked has looked at ways of reducing healthcare costs, such as joining a collaborative purchasing group that includes more than two dozen municipalities and school districts.
“That’s something we’re always looking at,” Mr. Tarro said.
School committee member Paula Dominguez wanted to know why the budget didn’t offer any flexibility for strong teachers to take on additional students. She said those educators who are “moving the needle” or have particular strengths should be given the opportunity to take on as many students as possible and the budget as presented, with a goal of even class sizes among grades and classes, doesn’t allow for that.
She also questioned if district leaders had considered using non-certified support staff with larger classes instead of hiring additional certified staff.
Mr. Messore said he didn’t think the district could single any teachers out.
“I think we work very hard in this district to make sure all teachers are trained properly and deliver high quality instruction,” Mr. Messore said.
Mr. Messore added that when there does seem to be one exceptional teacher, district officials try to bring that individual in to train other teachers and help with curriculum writing.
School committee chairman Robert Shea said administration hadn’t been asked to assemble a budget with such a consideration in mind and maybe the superintendent could consider the proposal and report back at a later date. School committee member Patrick Guida said he’d be willing to explore the topic but it would be “difficult” to make such an adjustment at this stage of the budget process.
Later, Ms. Dominguez questioned why the district had higher costs in some areas compared with other districts, such as the cost of physicians.
Mr. Tarro said the suggestion wasn’t unreasonable but it would take a lot of investigation including contacting each district for details on a respective account.
Mr. Guida suggested that perhaps administration could identify a number of areas where costs are higher using Uniform Chart of Accounts data and report back to the committee to determine if any area merits a deeper look.
Mr. Tarro said he and Mr. Messore are expected to meet with the appropriations committee on Tuesday, Feb. 26.