Superintendent Outlines a Series of Planned Fiscal Controls

Bedford Superintendent of Schools Cliff Chuang is preparing a series of fiscal controls in response to a massive deficit in the current education budget, resulting primarily in extraordinary expenses in special education out-of-district tuition and transportation accounts.

Chuang told the School Committee at its regular meeting this week that he expects to implement many of the steps by the start of the new fiscal year July 1, and some of them are about improving “information flow.”

The superintendent acknowledged a $1.2 million deficit in April, and after securing $1 million in state “circuit breaker” funding, reported an additional $280,000 shortfall. The warrant for a Special Town Meeting on June 11 includes a proposal to transfer $500,000 from free cash to the Finance Committee reserve fund.

Chuang said he will present an update on the current budget and a fiscal 2025 “reforecast” at the committee’s meeting June 10. 

He noted that the cost of the new elementary grades literacy curriculum is now known, and “we will continue to navigate the salary impacts for next year as that process continues.” That was Chuang’s only reference to the ongoing collective bargaining with teachers and paraprofessionals; earlier in the meeting, the vice president of the teachers’ union said the two sides are “still far apart.”

Among the steps Chuang presents to the committee were:

  • Meeting regularly with the director of finance and director of special education to monitor accounts. Chuang said they will begin next week. 
  • Initiating quarterly budget reviews with the School Committee, replacing the current midyear review.
  • Scheduling occasional School Committee meetings dedicated to the budget and other financial matters, which will create “a more formal structure for secondary review.”
  • Reviewing in-house financial practices with experts from the State Department of Revenue’s Division of Local Services. This was suggested last month by Finance Committee Chair Ben Thomas. The free consultation is not expected to be available until well into the new fiscal year. 
  • “Trying to leverage the full functionality of the accounting system and use line-item budget control,” identifying purchase orders that result in exceeding a line-item limit. “I want to balance being careful with being overly bureaucratic,” Chuang said. He noted that implementation of the townwide Munis accounting system is now complete, and Finance Director Julie Kirrane is “leveraging all of the features.” 
  • Formalizing a communication structure between school and town financial departments, to ensure that all records can be reconciled.

Chuang also called for School Committee review of existing fiscal policies, some of which are more than 20 years old and don’t match current practices. Culling some of these policies would be appropriate before the Division of Local Services review, he said.

The request for review requires formal votes by the School Committee and Select Board, and they both took place during meetings on Tuesday night. Town Manager Matt Hansen told the Select Board that he has spoken with Chuang about the service, which several years ago helped the town evaluate the Assessing Department.

Some members of the board expressed frustration about the budgetary struggles. 

“When something goes awry, we need to pay attention and not put stuff on the warrant until we are satisfied with some of the answers,” said Paul Mortenson, noting the deleterious impact on all town budgets. 

Dan Brosgol said a review should take place before the state gets involved “because at this point, I don’t believe a single number we are hearing.”

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