School Committee Presents a 3-Part Budget Proposal to Finance Committee

The Finance Committee Thursday considered a three-pronged proposed school budget for fiscal year 2022.

The committee’s decision process for the budget options will begin after next Thursday’s presentation on budget proposals for departments under the jurisdiction of the Select Board. Recommendations must be approved by Feb. 18 to meet warrant deadlines, the committee noted.

School Superintendent Philip Conrad and Finance Director Julie Kirrane presented the proposal:

  • A baseline budget, reflecting a 3.8 percent increase over the current year, which reflects a continuation of school operations last seen in February 2020. The budget includes 6.1 additional personnel.
  • A supplement of up to $1.44 million to sustain some of the current protocols, which would allow for all students to return to school in the fall full time even if the pandemic is still winding down. This so-called “recovery budget” would necessitate an additional 17 teachers.
  • Continuation of a $450,000 town reserve allocation to cover the high cost of some out-of-district special education charges.

School Committee Chair Dan Brosgol stressed that “this is not an operational recommendation. It’s a question of resources only.” The actual model will be continually updated during the coming months, he said, as circumstances change, and it will be “well into summer before we know what the opening of school will look like.”

The “bottom line,” Conrad said, is all students will be accommodated in person except for those who, for medical reasons, will opt for full remote learning.

Several of the nine Finance Committee members said they have been monitoring school budget deliberations on Zoom, and congratulated the administrators and committee members for a thoughtful, responsible process. There were several questions for clarification and a few suggestions for savings, but the overall session was collegial, replete with sympathy on the challenge of budgeting in the midst of a pandemic.

The superintendent emphasized that the baseline budget “maintains strong support for our students,” academically, socially, and emotionally. Other goals include meeting the needs of all learners and advancing district-wide improvement plans.

The so-called “recovery” budget, Conrad said, accounts for some or all of the protocols that have been adopted in response to the pandemic: six feet of physical distancing, including on school buses; facemasks; disinfecting; increased use of hand sanitizer; ventilation; and air filtration.

The additional expenditures total up to $1.4 million, highlighted by 10 additional teachers in Davis and Lane Schools, so the number of classrooms can be expanded to ensure distancing. There will be a need for additional furniture and supplies. He noted that the additional hires, including two special educators and five middle and high school instructors, will result in $195,000 in employment benefits in a budget line item separate from education. FinCom member Erica Liu expressed concern about the pool of available teachers to hire,

Asked by FinCom member David Powell if there is any room to reduce the recovery budget, Conrad said that would result in “difficult choices.”

Conrad mentioned a worst-case-scenario budget, which increases over the current year by more than 12 percent. “This budget would need lots and lots of work,” he said. It wasn’t mentioned again.

School officials emphasized that they expect other revenue sources to cover at least some of the additional costs in the recovery budget. “There is talk in Washington that more money is coming to school districts and municipalities and we will make sure that we spend every federal state and private dollar before Bedford taxpayer dollars,” Conrad said.

Encouraging creative thinking, FinCom Chair Ben Thomas posed, “What if we made a pandemic stabilization fund, and that’s where the ‘up-to’ budget comes from? We have lots of options. The ask gives us degrees of freedom.”

Thomas expressed concern about the $450,000 special education reserve. “Is this a trend? That has the potential to be a budget disaster,” he said. Kirrane explained that every placement outside of Bedford is carefully vetted, although it is necessary to build in some money for “unknowns.” The projections are stable, she noted. Conrad emphasized that “we don’t want to pit special education vs, regular education.”

In answer to a question from Finance Committee member Steve Steele, Kirrane said the  5.7 percent projected growth in baseline school operations is a result of higher costs in transportation, facilities vendors and products, and some technology licenses.

He also touched on a theme that was repeated during the discussion: school transportation costs. Kirrane acknowledged that “a great many parents have stepped away from the buses this year, for many reasons.” She added that she expects ridership to grow over the coming year. Conrad agreed, saying, “Our ridership will go closer to where it was. Bedford Charter Service has worked with us each time we made changes.”

Answering other points, Conrad said he will look into the possibility of shared municipal-school human resources operations (though “a lot that we have done has not been computerized”). He also assured that higher energy and personnel benefits costs are being anticipated in other appropriate town line items.

Powell asked about enrollment projections. Kirrane said this year’s population is 79 fewer than projections; Conrad said it is expected to mostly recover. “We have been fortunate that enrollment has remained stable,” especially when compared to other towns.

He acknowledged that there may be kindergarteners or first graders who have been held out of school this year and may return en masse. Kirrane said a one-year aberration is not usually a major factor in a longer-term projection. She added that transfers to private schools have been minimal.

Asked by committee member Tom Busa for an assessment of the current financial picture, Conrad acknowledged that “we have spent more to bring back more students.” Kirrane said the amount is $1.34 million “above our appropriation and within the reserve limits of last spring.” She added that “we have had grant funding that will soften the impact.

Thomas reminded the committee  about the importance of the guideline. “The town is in shape to afford more,” he said, “but when we spend more than the guideline, we start to put ourselves on a downslope. The guideline is based on careful management.”

Some committee members asked questions about educational practices during the pandemic. Elizabeth McClung said she hopes students in the fine and performing arts receive the social and emotional support they need and access to space when possible. Conrad reminded the committee that his concentration before moving into educational administration was art.

Committee member Steve Carluccio also expressed concern about students’ and teachers’ social and emotional welfare. Conrad pointed out the efforts of school counselors, and the value of the responsive classroom initiative at the elementary level and the advisory program in the middle and high schools. Smaller classes will open more opportunities for relationship building, he added.

In answer to McClung’s question about making up lost classroom time, Conrad said, “That’s something we would have to do through negotiations.” Reduced classroom density would “allow for some of these instructional strategies,” he noted.

Asked if additional spending during the crisis could have benefits over the long term, Conrad acknowledged that there could be a saving for equipment. “We are looking at places where we can find some efficiencies that we sort of exposed during the pandemic,” he said.

Brosgol commented that smaller elementary school class sizes not only ensure distancing but also present some educational opportunities. “There so much nuance in here, so much complexity. The biggest driver is limiting kids in spaces. We are up for the challenge.”

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763

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