Deficit Remains in ‘Very Preliminary’ Look at Next School Budget 

Photo Credit: Robert Dorer

The variables that engendered a cumulative shortfall of more than $1.5 million in the current school budget will have a significant impact on next year’s spending as well.

Bedford Superintendent of Schools Cliff Chuang told the School Committee on Tuesday that “very preliminary” estimates of two major cost drivers – special education out-of-district tuition and special-education transportation – indicate around a $1 million deficit compared to the budget approved by town meeting less than eight weeks ago.

Chuang said the projections are based on “very conservative budget forecasting with variants built on the high end, based on lessons learned.” 

He added, “Hopefully a lot will dissipate as we get more data during the year.”

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The superintendent said that over the next month he also is implementing “a strategic examination” of all expenses with the leadership team. 

“I feel that it is incumbent on the team to really take a hard look because of the level of uncertainty,” he told the committee. 

Ideally, he said, the district will retain its “core educational values” with a more efficient delivery.

At its May 28 meeting, the superintendent plans to provide the School Committee with details about the strengthening of fiscal controls. He said he intends to do another budget “status check” at the September meeting, but committee members Angel Pettitt and Sheila Mehta-Green said a summer report would be preferable.

“We can definitely provide an update in July,” Chuang said.

Julie Kirrane, director of finance for the schools, said, “As soon as we know our salaries, the whole budget will be reforecast. The biggest unknown is the salaries.” 

The superintendent and School Committee have been negotiating with two collective bargaining units – teachers and paraprofessionals – for several weeks. The contracts expire on June 30.

Last month Chuang confirmed a current deficit of about $1.2 million with significant overruns in special education tuition, transportation, and professional services, as well as the substitute line. 

After quickly erasing $1 million through allocations from the state circuit-breaker program, Chuang confirmed an additional deficit of almost $300,000, again linked to transportation. A June 11 Special Town Meeting article will, if approved, add $500,000 to the Finance Committee reserve fund. The School Committee plans to seek a reserve fund transfer to cover the final fiscal 2024 shortfall, and the current fund balance may not be sufficient to cover it.

For the year beginning in September, the superintendent, Kirrane, and Director of Special Education Marianne Vines “have reforecast at the student-by-student level,” Chuang said. “We are projecting some stability to the enrollment, but still higher than it was. The cost of a residential tuition can vary widely and the variance this year was all on the upper end. We are carrying much of those costs to next fiscal year.”

Regarding transportation, the superintendent said that “we are looking for new providers to drive down the costs, but we are projecting very conservatively in projecting the rate.” 

One cost-saving option would be reimbursement to parents who drive their children, he said.

Kirrane noted that she invited bids for transportation from private vendors and seven attended a meeting. She said she still hopes the bulk of the service is provided by Bedford Charter Service and the transportation arm of the CASE collaborative.

Committee member Brad Morrison asked about a special education line item called “ancillary costs.” Kirrane said those cover summer programs, bus monitors, vision services, and at-home services. Larger such costs are folded into the tuition line, she added. 

Chuang acknowledged that because of the immediate relief from state circuit-breaker reimbursement, some of the funding anticipated for next fiscal year has already been received.

Pettitt asked about using the new stabilization fund for special education that was approved by Annual Town Meeting. “That was the whole purpose,” Chuang said, acknowledging that “I don’t know if $350,000 will be sufficient.” 

In answer to a question from Chair Sarah Scoville, Chuang said the fall town meeting can add to the fund for use during the same fiscal year.

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