FinCom Majority Says School Budget Increase Excessive

February 10, 2023

A majority of the Finance Committee on Thursday had a message for the Bedford School Committee: your 4 percent fiscal 2024 budget increase is excessive, and we want you to try to align with our 3.5 percent increase guideline.

Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad said Friday morning that he is conferring with School Committee Chair Brad Morrison and Finance Director Julie Kirrane on how to respond. There is a 15-minute budget discussion included on Tuesday’s School Committee meeting agenda.

“We understand that this is a collaboration,” Conrad told the committee after it became clear where most members stood. 

Kirrane said Friday that the differential between a 3.5 percent and 4 percent budget increase is $233,393. The total proposed budget is $46,970,981, an increase of $1,813.891.

The committee, at its regular meeting on Thursday, digested a detailed budget presentation by Conrad, who acknowledged that the budget exceeds the guideline, and asked several questions on a wide range of topics.

The only budget line for which the Finance Committee had a specific suggestion was the $56,000 salary for a “reserve teacher” who would be hired over the summer only in response to an unexpected enrollment spike in the elementary grades. FinCom members agreed this expense could instead be covered through a reserve fund transfer.

Committee Chair Ben Thomas prefaced the individual questions by citing the Finance Committee’s history of supporting education. “We value the schools and we do what we can to support them,” he said, noting that “we are also swimming in the same funding pool.”

After the question-and-answer session, Thomas, citing the needs of other elements of town government, said “I’m not sure I can support 4 percent. I would like you to make an effort to get it down to 3.5.”

Other members followed his lead. Ron O’Brien noted that line items for needs that are not immediate result in a larger base for future years’ increases. Abby Seibert, a former School Committee member, said, “I think the 4 percent is overkill at the moment.” She added a little later that her position was “not set in stone yet.”

Steve Steele pointed out that the current fiscal 2024 model indicates revenues will be rising by 3.8 percent. He added that the town budget will be absorbing increases in health insurance and utilities related to the schools. “I would like to see the School Committee come down to 3.5.” His colleague Elizabeth McClung agreed.

Only Paul Mortenson was unequivocal in his support for 4 percent. Mortenson will be joining the Select Board after the March 11 Town Election. FinCom member Tom Rowan said he wanted to evaluate the education budget as part of the “total picture.” He was concerned that schools would “bear the brunt; there are other levers to pull.”

Two members of the Finance Committee were absent.

There was a brief conversation about user fees for extracurricular activities and parking, which have been rejected by School Committees for the past generation. There was no consensus among FinCom members on Thursday.

The net staff increase in the proposed budget is 1.6 with a reduction of elementary school faculty more than offset by additions in special education professionals and the reserve teacher. The part of the budget designated as “operations” rises by an inflation-driven 9 percent.

Thomas asked if the district’s in-house special education programs continue to save money, as an alternative to out-of-district placement.

Conrad said that not only are there savings, but “more importantly, it makes sense for that child, that family, and the community” by keeping children in the school, and in the neighborhood and “the friends they grew up with.”

Thomas asked if the programs could potentially accept students from out of the district. Conrad did not rule it out, but he noted that those configurations are best reflected in the educational collaboratives.

Mortenson asked about prospects for meeting the 3.5 percent guideline in coming years and Conrad, who is retiring in June, was not optimistic, citing “a lot of pressures:” personnel costs, transportation, and “the needs of students, things like social-emotional learning and counseling.” 

Some members focused on enrollment projections. In answer to a question from O’Brien, Conrad said his office takes into account the impact of planned housing expansion, most recently a proposed 139-unit development off Carlisle Road.

McClung asked Conrad if the district conducts “exit interviews” with families who opt for private or home schooling. “People leave for lots of different reasons so I wouldn’t characterize it as a problem,” Conrad replied.

Asked by Seibert to share his “wish list,” Conrad replied, “Time and space. I would be thinking about more time for our educators so they can develop curricula, and I would give them space from the treadmill they feel they are on sometimes. And I would compensate them for both of those things.”

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