Bedford’s proposed fiscal 2023 education budget reflects a 3.5 percent increase over the current year. But there is also a saving — $250,000 resulting from a planned reduction in a companion reserve account.
Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad presented a budget overview to the School Committee at its Dec. 21 virtual meeting.
Conrad said his $45,157,090 budget conforms to the Finance Committee’s 3.5 percent guideline for fiscal 2023 increase.
When asked, Finance Director Julie Kirrane pointed out that the guideline was actually 3.25 percent, voted last week. “We went with what was expected,” she explained, adding that the differential “is not something insurmountable.” The guideline in recent years was 3.5.
Conrad also told the committee that he will be seeking a separate $200,000 in reserve for unexpected costs for out-of-district special education placements. That account has totaled $450,000 each of the past few years, and some Finance Committee members expressed concern about its future.
Most of the budget falls under what Conrad labels “maintenance of effort,” and that reflects an overall increase of 3.15 percent. Almost 83 percent of this comprises salaries; that line increases by 3.6 percent, he reported. The category “operating expenses” is projected to grow 2.9 percent.
Also built into the budget is a 19.9 percent reduction ($178,000) in transportation expenses for special-education students, thanks to additional revenue through the state Student Opportunity Act. Conrad said the legislation reimburses districts 25 percent of current eligible costs; ultimately the law provides for 50 percent reimbursement.
Committee member Ann Guay said school officials should thank the town’s legislators, State Rep. Kenneth Gordon and State Sen. Michael Barrett, for their support of the bill. “This is such important funding,” she said.
Conrad said 0.35 percent of the budget—totaling $1,527,051—can be categorized as “additional needs.”
“This is a snapshot. We know that things will continue to change,” Conrad told the committee. He said variables include retirements, special-education caseload, and efficiencies. The superintendent thanked Kirrane and the district’s leadership team for their work on the document.
The School Committee plans to review the budget proposal line by line at a January meeting. A required public hearing will be held on Jan. 25.
Conrad said his budget prioritizes “current initiatives;” new additions are “minimal.” The figures reflect “normal operations,” and do not include any measures in response to the pandemic. The budget “prioritizes resources to meet the needs of all learners.”
Department budgets are mostly level-funded, he said, although an additional technology lease will be needed for iPads. The only personnel increase is mandated under requirements for special-education students, he said.
The budget line for out-of-district tuition is $3.5 million, up by 3.5 percent. Guay commented that more attention needs to be paid to the social and recreational needs of students with learning needs who are enrolled in Bedford schools rather than to residential placements.
The transportation line in the 2022-23 budget grows by 6.1 percent, Conrad said; the school bus contract will be entering the fourth of five years with a built-in 5 percent increase.
Conrad summarized the proposals beyond maintenance of effort:
- Continuing the staggered adoption of a new elementary mathematics curriculum. The cost for grade 4 is pegged at $17,000.
- Reviewing options and then piloting a social-emotional learning curriculum for children in kindergarten through grade 5 for $15,000.
- Continuing some online curriculum tools added during the pandemic, almost $26,000.
- Funding an interscholastic gymnastics team, cooperative with Wilmington High School, for $4,500 plus the coach’s salary.
- Adding a centralized registration module of the Aspen system, for $9,152. Currently, households with students in multiple schools have to register at each. Committee Chair Sarah Scoville observed, “Any idea of making Aspen easier for parents is good.”
The superintendent also shared a hypothetical cost breakdown for the return of the Covid-19 response. The highlights are $48,000 for a half-time nurse “floating” among the schools, plus substitute nurses; $30,000 for custodial overtime; and $211,000 covering personal protective equipment, disinfectant, and filters, and other ventilation accessories.
He added that it is hoped these kinds of expenditures would be covered by money from the American Rescue Plan Act.
“This is a wonderful place to be in late December,” said committee member Dan Brosgol about the process. “We are really in good shape for right now.”
He asked the superintendent what, ideally, he would have liked to have included in the budget. “We focus in on where we are. I don’t know if I allowed myself to open up to other possibilities,” he replied. “But whatever we added would be to support our teachers in the classroom.”
He added that additional professional development opportunities for teachers or opportunities for student innovation “are ideas that really require bandwidth. And right now, in the midst of this pandemic, bandwidth is a challenge we’re all facing.”
The superintendent reviewed enrollment projections with the committee, totaling 2,581, which is 22 below the current year. The current enrollment at Davis and Lane Schools is 46 fewer students than the previous year, and that means three fewer classes next year, Conrad said. Guay observed that it would be interesting to survey exiting students on their reasons for leaving.
Kindergarten size is “an enrollment driver,” the superintendent said and will be monitored into the summer. “We have a lot of demographic data but it is still one of those things we have to watch as we go,” he commented.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763