Free-Cash Cushion to Zap School Deficit Proposed for Warrant

Superintendent Cliff Chuang has been in discussions with School Committee and Finance Committee this week about a large school budget deficit. Image: /BedfordTV

The June 11 Bedford Special Town Meeting warrant is expected to include a $500,000 jolt to the Finance Committee reserve fund to cover a projected deficit in the current school budget.

The money would be transferred from free cash, so there would be no direct impact on the tax levy. The Select Board is scheduled to finalize the warrant at its meeting on Monday.

A week ago, town and school officials breathed a sigh of relief after the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education confirmed Superintendent Cliff Chuang’s filing for about $1 million to cover unforeseen expenses related to special education. That left a remaining shortfall of about $200,000.

But Chuang told the School Committee on Wednesday that he identified an additional deficit of almost $280,000, primarily because of the need to engage additional drivers and vehicles for in- and out-of-district special education students.

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School officials have implemented various cost controls and spending reviews, and Chuang told the School Committee that “we hope to bring down that number, but we want to be sure we are solid because things tend to shift until the end of the year.”

The Finance Committee met with school officials for more than an hour on Thursday before recommending the article that would add $500,000 to the current reserve fund of about $550,000. 

“We can vote a reduced amount when we get the request from schools,” said Finance Committee Chair Ben Thomas. 

Chuang wants the School Committee to vote that number on June 10 at the Special Town Meeting. 

There will be appeals for reserve fund transfers from other town departments. Any leftover funds would revert to free cash. 

Thomas emphasized that the town will ensure that all special education students will receive the education and transportation services to which they are entitled.

But he also took the opportunity to predict a more stringent approach to spending. 

“The town just plain spends too much. We are burning down our reserves at a rate that we’ll lose them soon. And everyone’s going to have to play this game of belt-tightening,” he said. “We’re taking it in the neck. We can’t keep it up. Our budgets are growing faster than we can afford.

“You need to consider things that we used to think are unthinkable,” he said, such as “a slight increase in class sizes. It makes a huge financial difference.” 

Chuang said that “everything is on the table” that doesn’t compromise core educational standards.

School and Finance Committee members have expressed dismay that the financial crisis wasn’t acknowledged until April. 

“The late midyear update was something that should have been better prioritized,” the superintendent acknowledged.

Chuang detailed for the school Committee the measures he has taken in response to the delay. He said he is personally signing all service contracts and reviewing hiring scenarios every week. 

“To date, I have identified three vacancies that I have decided will not impact student services for the remainder of the year.” 

And for the coming year, “I am already working to identify positions that aren’t absolutely essential.”

During the remaining weeks of school, as students take field trips and seniors graduate, he plans to replace substitutes with teachers whose schedules have openings. 

“We also are trying to maximize the use of district vans rather than chartering buses,” he said.

Finance Committee member Karen Dunn on Thursday said the deficit scenario was like a game of “Whack-a-Mole,” and asked how her panel “could rely on what we are hearing.” 

Chuang detailed that at a meeting on May 28, he will present to the School Committee “a set of recommendations about improvements to our fiscal control structure.”

He said, “We don’t have hard fiscal controls because of past practices and system limitations” that have been improved since the installation of the Munis accounting system. 

“I did not prioritize changes to internal controls because they have been fine,” Chaung said. “Now staff is reconciling purchase orders and spending projections.”

Dunn inquired about arranging for an independent review of financial systems, and Thomas urged that the schools contact the state Division of Local Services, which provides free analysis and advice.

Chuang replied that “very-short-term and easy-to-address controls will help a lot.” He noted that one of his roles during his DESE career was to establish fiscal policies and procedures for charter schools.

“A new set of neutral eyes always helps,” Thomas said. 

Member Philip Prince added, “I really hope the controls work, but I think it’s really important to have an independent party review it.”

Answering a question from committee member Abbie Seibert, Julie Kirrane, the schools’ director of finance, said all revenue accounts are under review, including revolving funds. 

Seibert characterized it as “digging under mattresses and between seat cushions.” She observed that regarding fiscal controls, “it sounds like some of the things were on autopilot.” 

Chuang acknowledged that “you discover things when they don’t work.”

Seibert said that when the School Committee approves a new elementary grades literacy curriculum, scheduled for May 28, members should try to differentiate between “nice” and “extravagant.”

Prince questioned how the special education budget could have been built “from the ground up,” and said, “My biggest concern is that one of the largest variables of our budget was one of the things that you don’t re-evaluate year over year. It’s really hard for me to trust the system.”

His colleague George Lee asked if there was a scenario in which the schools would return asking for even more money, and Chuang wouldn’t rule it out. The superintendent told the School Committee on Wednesday, “There is nothing I am aware of right now that gives us reason to believe this number will go higher. But I have learned to be not overconfident.”

Lee also cited a disconnect between the administration’s insistence during budget presentations that line items were essential, and the subsequent cost savings were found in response to the deficit.

Kirrane said one reason her office was challenged was “we cannot hire people.” Some positions were vacant for months with multiple searches, she said.

At the School Committee meeting, Chuang said that some planned capital items could be deferred to save money in the short term, but they would have to be “declassified” by Town Meeting vote. 

“We would prefer not to touch those since they are part of high-priority capital investments that we did not whimsically ask for,” Chuang said.

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