Panel Open to School Budget Cuts, but Indicates Floor is 5.5 Percent Increase

January 11, 2024
The Bedford School Committee performed a line-item review of Superintendent Chuang’s proposed fiscal 2025 budget on Tuesday. Image: BedfordTV

The Bedford School Committee is expected to finalize changes to Superintendent of Schools Cliff Chuang’s proposed fiscal 2025 budget and adopt a revised version at its meeting next Tuesday.

After a line-item review and subsequent discussion last Tuesday with Director of Finance Julie Kirrane, the committee indicated that a 5.5 percent spending increase over the current year will be the minimum.

The committee wants to vote on the budget next week since the statutory hearing on the plan is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 23. 

Committee Chair Dan Brosgol said the “maintenance of effort” budget – perpetuation of current personnel and programming – is “sacrosanct.” That represents growth of about 4.5 percent.

Chuang has proposed additional spending that would bring the increase to 5.95 percent over the current budget. The major components are: 

  • Elementary literacy curriculum replacement – $170,000 (plus $210,000 in one-time costs to be sought as a reserve fund transfer)
  • “Intensive programming and student support” – $196,000
  • Instructional data specialist and dashboard software – $105,000
  • Elementary school substitute improvement – $102,600

He also is proposing $130,000 that would be used to implement the new district improvement plan, which won’t be complete until several weeks after Town Meeting.

On Tuesday, he told the committee, “We are going to trim the elementary coverage model, trim the data technology issue. We can propose something lower, or not at all if there’s a comfort zone with that.”

Brosgol, who fully supports the literacy curriculum change, pointed out that deleting $235,000 for the improvement plan and data specialist and software would drop the increase a little below 5.5 percent. 

Two other members, Sarah McGinley and Sheila Mehta-Green, said they envision adopting an increase of between 5.5 and 6 percent.

Chuang said his reworked system of substitute coverage “addresses a core issue that has plagued our elementary schools since Covid.” 

Committee member Sarah Scoville said finding sufficient substitute teachers has been a challenge throughout her seven years on the board.

Committee member Brad Morrison said he is concerned about how the maintenance-of-effort increase will be received. He asked about “the treatment of inflation in the whole budget.” 

Kirrane replied that the current budget reflects “a fairly significant inflationary cost adjustment” for services and supplies, The proposed budget, she said, is “a more customized approach. We targeted the lines likely to be impacted to the best of our ability.”

“This committee never said 6 percent was a target. All we said is that 3.5 would be hard,” said Brosgol. “I prefer to pare back now and come back for more later.”

“Given the size of our budget, there’s uncertainty even beyond what we are debating,” Chuang said. He called it “a perfect storm of uncertainty,” featuring ongoing contract negotiations with the teachers’ union, dozens of migrant children in an emergency shelter, the cost of the literacy curriculum, the amount of state aid to education, and a new accounting system that makes comparisons more difficult. 

“I am truly committed to collaborative stakeholder decisions,” Chuang said, adding, “To reduce uncertainty requires short-circuiting the collaborative process.” 

McGinley was emphatic about the need to “live up to our commitment to the literacy curriculum.” 

Mehta-Green also was concerned about the actual cost. “There’s great agreement in the community that this is needed,” she said.

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Tricia Clifford said the ad hoc committee evaluating curricular products is scheduled to continue meeting through May, so the actual costs can’t be ascertained now, though “the average looks like about $350,000. 

Chuang affirmed, “We are committed to make sure we do this right.”

Chuang has often cited the importance of a budget line to launch one or more elements of the next district improvement plan. He offered to make expenditures contingent on School Committee approval.

Mehta-Green said, “I understand that it’s really hard to say it is going to be another year and go back to the budgeting process.” But she was concerned about a “carte blanche” amount approved ahead of completion of the plan.

The superintendent indicated that the $130,000 he proposed is a flexible amount. Asked to provide examples of possible spending targets, he mentioned professional preparation for changes in school start times, or additional math intervention programs for elementary students.

Asked by McGinley about budgeting for the students in the emergency shelter, Chaung said the $104 per-student daily reimbursement from the state government “may end up to our benefit.” But he noted that the amount is only pledged through the current state fiscal year. The 2024-25 student population will be impacted by a younger cohort reaching kindergarten age, he acknowledged.

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