The Bedford School Committee on Tuesday adopted Superintendent of Bedford Public Schools Cliff Chuang’s proposed $49,383,798 fiscal 2025 budget, changing just two totals under “additional needs” that didn’t affect the bottom line.
The Finance Committee is scheduled to review the budget at a meeting on Feb. 1. Several months ago, the committee voted a 3.5 percent spending increase guideline; the budget approved on Tuesday grew by 5.66 percent. The version that will be voted by the Finance Committee will be the one that is included in the Annual Town Meeting warrant.
Also approved by the School Committee was Chuang’s proposal to establish a stabilization fund to support unbudgeted out-of-district special education tuition and transportation. The committee unanimously agreed to propose seeding the fund with $500,000 from free cash. The plan requires town meeting approval.
Before Tuesday’s votes, the committee hosted a statutory public hearing on the budget. The only person to comment was Angel Pettit, who is the sole candidate in the March 9 election for a vacancy on the committee. Pettit’s question was about the size of the stabilization fund.
Chuang opened the hearing with a budget summary, noting a 4.7 percent increase for sustaining current services. Salaries, comprising 82 percent of that maintenance-of-effort amount, go up 4.6 percent over the current year, he said, and the number includes contractual salary adjustments for steps, lanes, and cost of living increases.
Supply budgets are increasing by 4.5 percent, as “we are trying to constrain supply budgets” in the context of “increased cost pressures.” Enrollment trends over five years reflect “a steady decline” among elementary school students and a slight increase in middle and high school “as the bubble works its way through the system.” The net change is seven fewer students. Also, the net staff increased is less than one-half position.
None of these things were mentioned during discussion leading to the vote. The School Committee’s focus was on two of Chuang’s categories of “additional needs,” totaling $440,365.
“First and foremost,” the superintendent said, is adoption of a new literacy curriculum in the elementary grades. He proposed a $170,000 allocation in the fiscal 2025 operating budget for “consumables,” and plans to request a $210,000 reserve fund transfer – perhaps as soon as this fiscal year – to cover one-time-only expenses such as extensive professional development.
Chuang also acknowledged that the $75,000 he requested as startup funding for upcoming district improvement plan projects could be moved to the literacy curriculum if necessary.
And that’s what happened on Tuesday.
A broad-based study committee is beginning a review of curricular products on the market, and will not make a recommendation until May, weeks after town meeting approves the budget. School Committee members were concerned that the funds allocated might not suffice.
“We know the number we are writing down right is going to be wrong,” member Brad Morrison commented. Chuang acknowledged that “there’s a range of costs,” but said the administration’s curriculum choice “will be guided by what this committee does.”
Member Sarah McGinley proposed reinforcements. She said the committee should reject Chuang’s $75,000 improvement plan request; “I’m somewhat uncomfortable with requesting money when we have many justifiable and measurable increases,” she said. Then she proposed adding $75,000 to the literacy curriculum line. That plan is crucial, she said, and “I want to ensure our success.”
“There are going to be hidden costs,” she continued. For example, since fifth-graders will only experience one year of the new system, some training for grade six teachers may be needed.
Committee Chair Dan Brosgol proposed making arrangements with the Finance Committee to provide the specific amount needed once it is known. “We would absolutely get it if we asked for it,” he said, noting that he has heard feedback from residents that “we are being cavalier with resources.”
Member Sarah Scoville said she was “nervous” about the Finance Committee’s reaction. “I would really like to go into Town Meeting with 100 percent Finance Committee support, and there’s a lot we are asking.”
But Morrison replied that every budget number is guesswork to some degree. “This is not a negotiation with the Finance Committee. Our job is to look very closely at the way we are spending our money and let the Finance Committee know what we need.”
The budget vote ended up 4-1, as Brosgol, who is the lone candidate for a Select Board seat on the ballot, said he disagreed with the “mechanism.”
Chuang’s other additional needs, approved as part of the budget, cover:
- A new model for substitute teacher coverage in Davis and Lane schools, replacing building substitutes with teaching assistants. “We are unable to attract substitute teachers, and what has resulted is a cascade,” Chuang explained, as available educators are “pulled from their existing jobs.” He labeled the new model a “first line of defense.” The net increase is $70,906.
- Intensive programming adding “trauma-informed mental health services” at Davis School, plus a structural change in special-education administration, with a net impact of $196,286.
- Monitors of student food waste recycling in the four lunch rooms for $12,000. A successful pilot program is taking place at the middle school. Morrison said “the real challenge is to reduce waste,” and Chuang replied some reduction is built into the recycling process.