Members of the Bedford School Committee on Tuesday struggled with the superintendent’s 2023-24 budget proposal eliminating five educators’ positions because of declining enrollment in the elementary grades.
But the committee stopped short of compromising guidelines for classroom size, as well as on overall expenditures.
The topic was spotlighted during the annual budget review, a marathon line-by-line explanation led by Director of Finance Julie Kirrane. There were many details and few questions about the $46,970,981 budget other than the staffing proposal.
The board will host a statutory virtual budget hearing next Tuesday at 7 p.m. A committee vote on adopting the proposal is expected to follow.
Committee member Sarah Scoville on Tuesday called staff reductions “the elephant in the room.” She acknowledged that “keeping the teachers and having lower class sizes is an expensive option.”
Kirrane replied, “This boils down to the projected enrollment, the number of sections, and our class size guidelines. Based on those three data points, we don’t require as many elementary teachers.”
She pointed out that the budget includes funding a “reserve teacher,” and the position will be filled only if there is an unexpected enrollment spike close to the new academic year.
Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad explained, “Particularly at Davis, if our enrollment was to go up to the high end of the guideline, we would utilize that position. The projection is we don’t believe it is going to go up.”
In answer to a question from committee Chair Brad Morrison, the superintendent said there are other opportunities in the Bedford schools for some of the educators affected.
“Is there any way that we can save some of the teacher positions to make specific classrooms smaller because they have students who perhaps have not had the success we hoped for?” said member Ann Guay. “We have a cohort of students who for whatever reasons are not making the progress we hoped for.”
Sarah McGinley, the non-voting committee member representing Hanscom Air Force Base households, added that smaller classes would benefit social-emotional learning, one of the district’s top goals. “I just wonder if we could be creative in finding ways to make it work,” she said, acknowledging that “there are reasons it doesn’t work with the numbers.”
(Guay is retiring after 10 years on the School Committee. Barring a successful write-in campaign for someone not on the ballot, she will be succeeded by McGinley, who is on the March 11 Town Election ballot with Scoville for two open seats.)
Conrad noted that the classroom enrollment guidelines were approved by the School Committee. “We believe that the enrollment is accurate and the reduction because of enrollment is accurate as well. Enrollment fluctuations are a year-to-year challenge.”
He added that the current budget proposal is already a 4 percent increase; the Finance Committee guideline was 3.5 percent.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations about enrollment and the need to stay in guidelines,” said Conrad in answer to a question from Dan Brosgol. “During the pandemic, they were lower” for learning reasons. “I take responsibility that this is the prudent financial thing to do. I never want to see us losing educators, but in this case, we have less students.”
Brosgol suggested that the School Committee could alter the classroom size guidelines, and “we have some time left.”
Student population numbers are “sobering,” Brosgol acknowledged. They’re “pretty stark compared to when we were building additions.” He said he hopes better “housing stock will make things more affordable.” He pointed out that even with additional places to live, there won’t be an exponential enrollment increase. “Whatever happens, it will take a long time. The decline is happening in real time.”
“You could have discussions for hours about why young families are not moving into town,” Guay said. She noted that “there was a time when our numbers went up because of apartments.” Parents are attracted to Bedford because the town does not have neighborhood elementary schools, she said.
McGinley added that rents are rising faster than military families’ basic housing allowance. After decades of these families living in local apartments, now “we are not getting as many.”
Historically, Kirrane said, “we have had more move-ins than move-outs,” and the impact has been especially apparent in the younger grades. But recently “we are seeing less move-ins and we can’t exactly answer why. There are eight to 12 variables in school attendance patterns that have radically shifted in the last three years, and we are also having low birth rates.”
She added, “Kindergarten forecasting is a best guess no matter how good they are with any of this stuff.” Scoville reminded that the enrollment increase “bubble” continues to move through the older grades.
There were occasional questions but few conversations for most of the budget review. “We look at all expenses every year, ground up, and evaluate those,” Kirrane told the committee. “Every year we look at what we’re doing, what we’re purchasing, and we build a budget from the ground up.”
Brosgol observed that the budget increase can be summarized in two categories: significant increases in operating expenses, and absorption in the budget of what, for the past few years, has been a separate fund transfer for out-of-district tuition. “Everything is so closely managed.,” he said. “There’s a great case to be made for 4 percent.”
Regarding the fund transfer, Morrison said, “We should claim victory that we’re making this go away.”