Bedford Superintendent of Schools Cliff Chuang told the Finance Committee at a budget preview meeting last week that its 3.5 percent growth guideline for fiscal 2025 will not be sufficient to sustain the current level of personnel and programs.
Chuang stressed that the figures are preliminary. His detailed budget is scheduled for presentation to the School Committee on Tuesday, Dec. 19.
The differential between the guideline and Chuang’s initial proposal is $454,842, an increase of about 4.4 percent over the current year. The superintendent is also calling for additional expenditures between $600,000 and $750,000 for fiscal year 2025. That could jump the growth to as high as 6 percent.
In answer to a question from committee member Philip Prince, Chuang said that if the schools have to adhere to the 3.5 percent guideline, “We would obviously figure it out. But I would say that what the community has come to expect from its schools we would have to significantly compromise on.”
He warned that the district could lose a competitive edge in hiring.
“This community values its teachers,” he said, and payroll reduction would be the only way to stay within the guideline, either by capping costs or reducing personnel. “Those are the choices we would be faced with,” he said.
In answer to a question from member Mark Bailey, Chuang observed that competitiveness in hiring and retention “is a challenge. As a town you can position yourself better or worse. That is a decision for the town to make.”
“Looking at available data, Bedford is not as competitive to attracting and retaining a high-quality workforce as it has been. I believe we have to address that and adjust to bring us back into the mix.”
Finance Committee member Abbie Seibert advised colleagues that as a member of the School Committee more than a decade ago, she experienced budget-reduction scenarios.
“It was painful,” she said, recalling line-by-line consideration of programs, class sizes, and extracurriculars.
“I’m not saying 6 percent is where I want to land, but the exercise is really painful for the community,” she said. “It gets everybody who cares about education up in arms.”
But Finance Committee Chair Ben Thomas, noting the current year’s property tax increase, said, “All of us are responsible for what townspeople have to pay. Spending more than we take in means we have to raise taxes.”
“We anticipate and hope that this is an unusual year,” Chuang continued. “Based on the way we are trying to architect costs over the long term, we are confident that we would come down. We do not anticipate coming back next year with this kind of request.”
Chuang also explained his wish to establish a stabilization fund to cover unexpected out-of-district special-education costs, which are “notoriously hard to budget for.” The maximum allocation by law for next year would be a little more than $967,000. The fund could cover multiple years, said Julie Kirrane, the schools’ director of finance. Thomas acknowledged that flexibility would improve over the current fallback, reserve fund transfers.
The superintendent said that “significant resources will be required to meet the rising costs of essential services and contract obligations.”
As he outlined for the School Committee last Tuesday, Chuang said the main driver for the increase is salaries. He acknowledged that the district’s current contract with teachers expires on June 30. “We believe this is a reasonable budget, with the huge caveat that we haven’t begun negotiations,” he said.
There is also a lot of pressure to add special-education teaching assistants, he said; many of those positions are now filled by contract employees at a higher price. “In the market, there are companies passing costs on to districts because they know that districts are desperate,” the superintendent said. “It is an extreme cost pressure and puts a lot of pressure on staff when you are understaffed with your highest needs students.”
Also, facilities contractor costs are not staying within 3.5 percent, part of a general inflationary climate, Chuang continued. “I know that’s not a wonderful story line.”
Enrollment is projected to be stable, Chuang said. The emergency shelter in the Bedford Plaza Hotel, home to about 40 students, “is a wild card, but we have to build it into the base,” he noted. “Given what we know, I would be extremely surprised if the hotel empties out in any significant way this fiscal year or beyond.” State funds reimburse towns $18,000 per student per year, Chuang said, and a federal grant program is supposed to provide an additional $1,000 per student.
The additional expenses Chuang foresees include money to implement the first phase of the three-year district improvement plan, which won’t be completed until at least early June.
“Because I intend on developing a truly collaborative stakeholder process, it would be presumptuous of me to tell anyone what we are going to do,” Chuang said in response to Thomas’s question. “I would like to execute initial priorities without having to wait a full year. There are high expectations as to what parents would like to see.”
He added, “We are necessarily going to be in a holding pattern with respect to anything that’s new unless we begin to cut things.”
One of the additional expenses will be for a new elementary school literacy curriculum, Chuang said; that was approved by the School Committee last week. Other additional needs he mentioned were a new model for assigning in-house substitute teachers and some additional capacity to analyze performance data. There would be a net increase of two full-time positions, the superintendent said.
“You know my view on this: you get a bag of money. Do with it what you will. We’re about the size of the bag,” Thomas answered.
Chuang also pointed out that there will be a new school transportation contract beginning in fiscal year 2025.
Thomas asked, “Are there things that are not education related that we could consolidate in some other area of government, so you are undistracted in your mission of education?” Chuang said, “We engaged all of our instructional leaders in this process to identify both efficiencies and emerging needs.” Any efficiencies, he said, will not nearly offset the prospective increase.
The formal budget presentation to the Finance Committee is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 25. “I will defend whatever we present,” said committee Chair Dan Brosgol. “This is an extraordinary year for us. This is not a rubber-stamp process.”