I have been asked by a number of parents to outline the budget process and timeline and discuss how the process this year differs from past years. I have also been asked what parents and community members can do to be more involved this year.
The District and the Town prepare separate operational budgets and present them to the Board of Finance for consideration. The timeline for the District budget is as follows:
November/December: Staff collects information and begins to formulate a budget
January: Superintendent presents his/her budget to Board of Education
January/February: Board of Education deliberates, holds public sessions on budget
End of February: Board of Education approves budget and forwards to Board of Finance
March/May: Board of Finance deliberates and holds public sessions on budget
Board of Finance sets amount for referendum at which time the voters decide
Last year, the original Superintendent's budget with a 4% increase did not cover all required/necessary costs such as inflation, energy cost increases, health benefit increases, and contract requirements with the various employee groups. I felt that with the recovering economy the 4% was reasonable even though it did not meet all of the needs of the students and required some cuts to staff and programs. During Board of Education deliberations, that amount was further reduced to 3% and forwarded to the Board of Finance. The Board of Finance's final determination provided for only a 1.5% increase to the District operation budget. This resulted in a reduction of over 15 positions including teachers/paraprofessionals and other program reductions. With this timeline the Board of Finance at least knew what the impacts and implications of a 1.5% budget would be prior to their decision to move that forward to referendum.
The Capital Improvement Program (CIP) budget for major facilities and major purchases is developed separately. That budget will be approved by the Board of Education at their December meeting and forwarded to the Board of Finance separately from the District operational budget.
This year the process has been somewhat different. Rather than wait for a report and recommendations from the Board of Education that would have included an analysis of the automatic/inflation requirements and of the impacts of various options, the Board of Finance approved a "target" of 2% for all town departments. This decision was made without any consideration of the impacts this would have on class sizes, support services for students, facilities maintenance needs, safety needs or anything else.
Other changes this year include the pre-budget discussions with the Board of Education prior to the Superintendent's budget recommendation in January. At the November and December Board of Education meetings, information is being presented relative to major impacts to the education budget. The Board of Education will have specific data relevant to energy costs, insurance costs, and other automatic increases as well as some recommendations from the Superintendent related to specific additional needs for the schools. The Superintendent will use Board of Education direction gleaned from the November and December meetings to help form the January recommended budget.
The other question I have heard is related to the Board of Finance's final determination of an amount for referendum. Once the Board of Finance has set the amount for referendum, if that is voted down, the Board of Finance must further reduce the amount. Last year there were many community members who suggested voting down the 1.5% increase with the hope to increase that amount. While that may sound reasonable, it is not legal within the regulations of our town.
One last comment in preparation for budget discussions… two years ago, the Board of Finance approved a 2.5% increase that resulted in some reductions in staff and programs. Last year the 1.5% level had a significant impact on class size and support staffing needed for student success. As the final figures are gathered again this year, it is clear that just a maintenance budget to include energy and insurance costs and other contractual requirements will be well over the 2% level. If we continue to fund our schools at a level that is less than half of just a maintenance budget, we will need to further reduce staffing. Where will this end? The impacts on class size, mental health support, special needs support, and all other areas of responsibility for the Board of Education simply cannot continue to be cut every year.
I encourage our community members to attend Board of Education and Board of Finance meetings, and follow web articles and other communications about the budget process. Finally we should all demand that the whole community be allowed to decide and vote on the future of our town and our schools by allowing a vote on the final Board of Education budget.