Following several amendments to Superintendent Peter Horoschak’s recommended $162.2 million budget for fiscal year 2013, the School Committee approved a $160.4 million budget on Tuesday. The recommended budget called for $124.6 million in city allocation, an increase of $5.9 million over last year’s appropriation. However, the committee-approved budget reduces that request to $4.2 million.
There are three major needs that necessitate the request for additional funds, including $1 million in textbooks, $465,000 for a new roof at Park Elementary and $3.3 million for required fire code improvements in buildings this summer. Overall, the district must complete $10 million worth of fire code upgrades in its buildings over the next three years, which amounts to approximately $3.3 million per year.
Several years ago the department borrowed $8 million to make building improvements. Of the $3.5 million left in that account, the department plans to use $3.3 million for fire code improvements to be made this summer, thereby reducing the general budget by the same amount.
The $3.3 million reduction would have lowered the requested $5.9 million increase in city allocation to $2.6 million, but because the school department needs to be assured of having funds for phases 2 and 3 of the project, it added $1.6 million to the city allocation request to be included as part of the maintenance of effort going forward to ensure the $1.6 million will carry over to the next budget.
School Business Affairs Director Anthony Ferrucci explained that a commitment must be made by February 2013 in order for contractors to be lined up and for them to gather supplies and materials for work to be completed that summer. The $1.6 million requested in the approved school budget would go to contractors in February or March, allowing them to gather those supplies, and since that money is included as part of the maintenance of effort, the school department would receive another $1.6 million in the following year’s budget, which Ferrucci said would be used in September 2013 to pay the contractors for the actual work performed that summer, thereby making up the total $3.3 million. By this method, phase 1 work would be completed this summer using $3.3 million in bond money, phase 2 would be completed next summer with $3.3 million made up by the $1.6 million requested in the FY 2013 budget and another $1.6 million that would be included as part of the maintenance of effort for the FY 2014 budget. However, the department would need to request an additional $1.6 million in the FY 2014 budget, to be carried over in the maintenance of effort for the FY 2015 budget, making up the final $3.3 million piece needed to complete phase 3 of the work in the summer of 2014.
The school department will include a letter with its proposed budget, detailing the fire code situation and what is required, as well as offering the city the option to fund the request by raising taxes, or release bond money approved by voters in 2006 to be used instead.
If the work is not completed, Rosemary Healey, director of human resources and legal counsel for the school committee, said because the improvements are required by law, the fire marshal “intends to hold our feet to the fire and they will close any buildings not in compliance.”
Resident Mary Townsend asked what would happen if the Drum Rock Early Childhood Center, which is included in the phase 2 plans for upgrades, were to close because it was not compliant.
“Students at Drum Rock, at $75,000 to $100,000 per student [in tuition payments], would have to be moved to Meeting Street School,” she said. “Would you have to tuition that out because you would no longer be able to legally provide what’s required for the students’ IEPs [Individualized Education Program]? It was just something I was thinking about and wanted you to be aware.”
The remaining budget amendments came in the area of technology. During department budget presentations, there was talk of creating a director of technology position to oversee the entire information services/technology department in place of the technology applications assessment coordinator position, with a current salary of $94,000, for an added $20,398. Since the school committee had halted a presentation from the technology department at one of its earlier meetings and was unsure of whether a tech director position was necessary, it had proposed to create a stipend in the amount of the added salary and fringe benefit costs associated with the director position, so if it decided such a position was necessary, it would have the funding available. However, the stipend was eliminated.
“I’m not sold that we don’t need a technology director,” said committee member Christopher Friel. “I think one person should be in charge of overseeing the technology department.”
Citing the fire code improvements as his number one priority, committee vice chair Patrick Maloney attempted to find additional savings in the technology budget with motions to level fund the line items of technology hardware and software, but they were not seconded and failed. However, the committee did agree to cut an additional $75,000, which was planned to be used for moving the department’s computer system servers to a new location, because most of that work has already been accomplished using money in this year’s budget.
Regarding Maloney’s proposed motions, Friel said the committee would most likely have to revisit the budget and make decisions further down the line once it receives the city allocation, so rather than make cuts now, he suggested waiting to reassess the situation once it knows how much it will get from the city.
“We’re woefully inadequate with technology in our buildings, that’s obvious five minutes after walking in the door,” Friel said. “I don’t think we should eliminate our needs at this time.”
Maloney made a final motion to add $20,000 into the purchased services line item of the budget to be used for hiring an outside agency to restructure the school department’s website to better provide information to the community. His motion was unanimously approved.
“The biggest complaint I get since being on the school committee is parents calling about the website looking for information,” Terri Medeiros said. “It’s the face of our school.”
Maloney added, “I believe a restructured website will reduce the amount of communication put on our technology staff, allowing them to get more things done.”
Commenting on the overall budget, Medeiros said she’s tired of seeing students get short-changed.
“This shows good faith to the taxpayers and the city that we’re trying to do what we’re supposed to,” she said. “I’m tired of the kids being the ones that lose out; 85 percent of the budget doesn’t even go to them.”
School Committee chair Beth Furtado agreed that the committee will need to revisit the budget and make further amendments once it learns of the city’s allocation.
“I appreciate the energies and efforts of my colleagues to go in with a barebones budget, but I will not short-change the kids,” she said. “We need to make sure they have what they need.”