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Town increases budget share for schools, but there's room for more

Quote bar, red"We don’t know the exact number of teachers [districtwide], except at Thompson."
Superintendent Bodie 

In a budget compromise from Town Hall, the school administration would get $786,497 more than had been previously offered, but the School Committee had questions as some said the amount was not enough.

School Committee logo

Word of the new amount came to Superintendent Kathy Bodie from Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine on Thursday, Jan. 14, and she informed the School Committee that night.

"We just received numbers," she said, "... and they represent a positive change" in the proposed school budget.

That's the upside; Bodie spelled out the downside: The total requests for public education in Arlington are far beyond the amount offered.

Total requests amount to $3,872,980. The amount the schools can afford to fund as of mid-January is $1,529,378, she said.

Read a full statement about what the schools would get in the manager's preliminary fiscal 2017 budget message, released Jan. 19.

Bodie allowed that she did not expect to get all teachers and administrators had requested, but the remaining gap led Cindy Starks, budget subcommittee chair, to ask: "Do we need to go back to all [those who made requests] and ask them to cut?"

Bodie responded that about $800,000 in cuts had been identified that day before.

She asked the committee to think about its priorities does. "Some things are absolutely essential," she said, without being more specific.

"We don’t know the exact number of teachers [needed districtwide], except at Thompson," she said.

Maintraining services?

Member Jeff Thielman asked about, and received, clarification of a point made during December budget presentation -- that requests would maintain the current level of service in fiscal 2017.

Even with the extra money proposed by the town manager, "We will not be maintaining services," he said.

Member Bill Hayner said he appreciated the increased funds, "but they have to tell us where to cut."

The increased fund offer from Town Hall came after School Committee members in December expressed concern about changes to the budget formula.

One member, Jennifer Susse, referred to budget guidelines pitched to voters before 2011 the $6.5 million override. Under the approach going on five years ago, if voters agreed to the override, then town and school budgets were capped at 3.5 percent per year, with up to 7 percent for documented special-education cost increases, and there would be no override for three years.

That plan has worked far longer than three years. Further, the earliest an override might occur, according to town budget projections, would not be until 2018 -- and likely not until 2020.

Last spring, after discussions with the town Long Range Planning Committee, the manager's budget reflected a change in the formula, reducing the general education budget from 3.5 percent for fiscal 2016 to 3.25 in fiscal 2017.

To soften this budget blow, starting in fiscal 2015, the town provided the School Department with 25 percent of the per-pupil cost for each new student. That meant $886,000 above the 3.5 percent allotted in fiscal 2016 and $530,000 in fiscal 2016, with an additional amount this year that is yet to be determined.

At the Dec. 17 School Committee meeting, Chair Paul Schlichtman said: "The town has not increased anything, but our enrollment has increased 10 percent .... We need to adjust the formula."

That adjustment may be under way.

In a budget-related matter, Diane Johnson, the schools' chief financial officer, told the committee that the bids for modular classrooms at the Stratton School came in much higher than estimated earlier.

The estimate had been $1.8 million, and the highest-rated proposal was $3.3 million.

Opinion, Jan. 20, 2016: A look at the manager's preliminary budget, overrides

Dec. 30, 2015: School Committee pushes back on shifting budget formula

March 30, 2015: Schools appeal for changes in foundation budget

This report was published Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016.

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