The Bedford School Committee last week presented its $49.4 million budget for review by the Finance Committee, including proposals to adopt a new elementary school literacy curriculum, establish a stabilization fund in anticipation of unbudgeted special-education tuition, and revamp the system of assigning substitute teachers.
But the theme that pervaded much of the discussion was the current negotiations between representatives of the School Committee and the Bedford Education Association. The teachers’ and paraprofessionals’ contracts expire on June 30.
The Finance Committee did not vote, and discussion is expected to resume at its meeting on Thursday. The committee’s budget recommendations are the numbers that are presented on the town meeting warrant.
Last Thursday’s two-and-a-half-hour discussion was respectful, almost friendly at times. Most FinCom members began their question periods with expressions of gratitude.
“I advocate for the school system,” said George Lee.
“Your dedication to the task is extraordinary,” said Mark Bailey.
Abbie Seibert, a veteran of several terms on the School Committee, prefaced her segment with, “I’m hoping you are not thinking of this as an interrogation.”
But several members also emphasized that education is one piece of a comprehensive financial picture.
“We are looking at a lot of competing pressures on the budget,” Karen Dunn said.
Superintendent of Schools Cliff Chuang opened with essentially the same budget presentation he made to the School Committee and at the public hearing over the past month, allowing that the overall 5.64 percent increase exceeds the School Committee’s 3.5 percent guideline.
He pointed out that salaries comprise 82 percent of the “maintenance-of-effort” budget, and the proposed 4.6 percent increase in pay includes “known staff changes, vacancies, unpaid leaves, and contractual adjustments.”
Tom Rowan was the first Finance Committee member to ask questions following Chuang’s overview, and he immediately raised the contract topic. Rowan asked if the amount budgeted for Fiscal Year 2025 salaries reduces leverage in negotiations.
“There is some degree of uncertainty baked into any budget,” the superintendent acknowledged, adding that the district is making “a good-faith effort to attract and retain a high-quality workforce.”
Asked about turnover among educators, which has been a point of emphasis in the BEA’s public stance, Chuang said that among educational and teaching assistants, there has been “a higher degree of turnover, but that is part of the education sector’s challenge across the board.”
Among the teachers, he continued, turnover is in general “more now than before,” adding that “the pandemic threw a kink into some of that and people are reassessing what they want to do with their time.”
Rowan asked the superintendent to compare Bedford teacher salaries with those of surrounding towns.
“It’s fair to say there may be some ground that we need to make up,” Chuang replied.
When Rowan asked if that is being done though the proposed budget, Chuang said, “That is a factor that we have considered.”
Member Mark Bailey was the most explicit. He asked, “If we fail as a town to rise to this moment and support the team that supported us,” what could be the long-term consequences? Chuang repeated his concern about being “competitive, making sure we are attractive.”
He noted a particular focus on “the earlier stage of the pay scale,” but added, “We have folks who have invested many years in the system and we benefit greatly from their dedication and talent.”
He also used the word “value, being sure that we do acknowledge history and context as the town thinks about its investment.”
Chuang added, “It’s not just straight compensation that’s part of the equation.”
The town and schools’ share of the family health insurance plans “is not competitive. That limits our ability to be competitive. Bedford is attractive in many ways, but sometimes towns can coast. We should not be complacent, and invest in ways that continue to ensure the strength of our workforce.”
School Committee Chair Dan Brosgol added that Bedford’s family plan share is the lowest in the state, “which should be an embarrassment.”
The contract negotiations were a subtheme even before the meeting was called to order, as more than 60 members of the BEA, most wearing special T-shirts, filled most of the public seating in Town Hall’s Richard Reed Room.
Then, during the public comment period that opens all government meetings, a BEA member read a statement on behalf of the union. Bedford educators, she said, “have seen our real wages plummet over the past four years.” She noted that for 2020-21, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bedford was the only district in the area in which educators agreed to forego a cost-of-living increase. She added that higher pay is essential for the district to attract and retain quality educators.
During the back-and-forth between Rowan and Chuang, Brosgol said the outcome of contract negotiations is one of “three big buckets of uncertainty” in the proposed budget. The others are an allocation of $455,000 (including $210,000 from a planned reserve fund transfer) to acquire and implement a new literacy curriculum for the two elementary schools, and a new stabilization fund to segregate reserves for significant unbudgeted out-of-district special-education tuition.
“I’m trying to conceptualize all the pieces for 2025 and two or three years out,” Rowan said.
Chuang evoked laughter when he answered, “Remember, the schools are most important.”
The superintendent provided details in answer to Rowan’s question about the literacy curriculum. The reserve-fund transfer is intended to cover one-time-only costs, he explained.
Chuang said the operating budget will cover “consumable” student materials and professional development for faculty.
The committee appointed to review curricular products began with six or seven programs, Chuang reported, and it hopes to narrow the list to three in March. “The range of costs varies, so we are trying to build enough into the budget to robustly support it. The School Committee made it very clear to me that this is the top priority.”
The stabilization fund, which is a separate article on the Annual Town Meeting warrant, would be seeded with $500,000 of free cash if the School Committee suggestion bears fruit. Chuang wanted to deposit $950,000, which is close to the statutory limit.
Historically, Chuang told the Finance Committee, the schools have used the reserve fund route to cover unbudgeted out-of-district tuition, and that’s “not an ideal process. A stabilization fund serves a more transparent purpose for a set-aside.”
Thomas asked why not open with $300,000, but Chuang cited a case in which an assignment required an allocation of $400,000. “We wanted to make sure we could actually accommodate a single year’s draw.”
Philip Prince asked about the source of future stabilization fund seeding. Ideally, Chuang said, “we would get to a place where budget surpluses or reimbursements could be redirected.”
Seibert suggested that the capital article might be a source of deferred expenses. She asked if the initial success of camera installation in the high school could be used to buy time for a major expenditure completing the project next year. Chuang said the need for immediate safety and security improvement is emanating not only from a consultant’s study and the chief of police, but also, unsolicited, from parents.
Other questions focused on the superintendent’s “additional needs” proposals, such as $150,000 for clinical expertise and trauma-informed approaches to meet intensive needs of a small number of young students. Currently, “We don’t have the structures in place,” he said in response to a question from Lee. “Because Davis is the first stop, Davis is where it is determined what their needs are.” And some of those needs are reaching the “boiling point.”
Prince, citing competing budget pressures, wondered if “there [is] anything that can be prioritized to wait.”
Chuang said the district is already “late to the game on literacy,” and the support on the School Committee and among educators and parents is “unequivocal.” The new model for elementary grade substitutes could be delayed, but the current system “is not working.”
Earlier in the meeting, Thomas pointed out, “We vote the schools a single bottom-line number and the schools are free to do what they wish with it.”
Chuang told Prince, “With a budget of almost $50 million,” there can be flexibility. “The budget is our best projection; there are areas of uncertainty. It’s possible that we could be okay, or not. Variance is two-sided.”
“Our track record for supporting the schools is unblemished – we always give you what you need. And we are going to do that,” Thomas said. But he also stressed that the Finance Committee’s responsibility is for stability over multiple years. He also pointed out that when adding the reserve-fund transfer for the literacy curriculum, the actual increase over the current year is 6.1 percent.