Shortfall in current budget; CFO leaving in February

Diane Johnson, CFO, 2009-2017"... a strange mixture
of feelings."
Diane Johnson,
CFO, 2009-2017

UPDATED, Jan. 29: School officials are dealing with an estimated $821,000 budget shortfall in the current budget, boosted by what Chief Financial Officer Diane Johnson called a "completely nasty surprise" in teacher longevity costs. YourArlington previously reported that the shortfall was projected in the fiscal 2018 budget.

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Johnson recently found the $150,000 jump in salary increases for teachers entering their 13th year in the system and reported it to the School Committee on Thursday, Jan. 12 -- the same night she told them she was leaving the position. She will be CFO of the Dr. Franklin Perkins School, a special-needs facility in Lancaster, starting March 1. She plans to present the superintendent's proposed budget to the committee Feb. 9.

Before that happens, the committee faces addressing a significant shortfall, and, based on discussion Jan. 12, members outlined a plan to do that.

Johnson apologized for the new numbers, which undercut her December forecast, saying has been working without a full-time school accountant for more than a year.

Rob Spiegel, the schools' human-resources director, was asked Jan. 13 what salary range will be advertised for the CFO, the geographic scope of the search and when the administration would like the position to be filled. He responded Jan. 20: "I will get this to you as we have it."

He wrote that he expects to SchoolSpring, a job site with a national reach, as well as the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials and the Massachusetts Municipal Association. Candidates in this state must be licensed as a school business administrator.

The expected advertised pay range has not been set, he indicated, but the the current annual pay for CFO is $127,995.

Special-ed, circuit-breaker costs

The bulk of the current shortfall is from the out-of-district special-education costs, and the plan to deal with the red ink involved a discussion of how to use circuit-breaker funds to help fill gaps.

At the Dec. 15 meeting, Johnson forecast that the budget would be balanced by using the reserves for special education in the town account and the school department's reserve account plus some savings from other parts of the budget.

Unfortunately, she announced Jan. 12 that longevity-pay increases, awarded to teachers who remained in the system 13 or more years and/or acquire additional training, exceeded an earlier projection. The increased wage cost, she reported, was for the past several years was around $200,000 but now was roughly $350,000. Because of the way the data are collected, she said, "there is no easy way to capture" this expense.

"As you have heard," she wrote in a Jan. 6 memo to the committee, "I will be leaving my position in Arlington on February 10. As I am writing this, my second to the last monthly report, I must admit to a strange mixture of feelings.

"The Budget Tracking report shows that our overage has increased to $821,005. In addition to the previously reported increases to Out of District Tuition, I must report an additional budget finding. As questioned last month, our teacher longevity expenses (Object 81413) have been running beyond budget. I investigated the matter more closely, and found that many more employees became eligible to receive longevity than I had anticipated in the FY17 budget.

"I apologize for this error. I have been operating without a full time School Accountant for over a year now, and it was inevitable that despite my best efforts something would get past me. I hope, as I prepare to hand off these responsibilities, that any other existing errors come to light as well."

Numbers -- certain and uncertain

To craft the fiscal 2018 budget, school officials are sure of one number -- $60,928,485 -- the town's appropriation. That is up from 57,172,443 for fiscal 2017. What they don't know for certain is how much state will be coming.

To partially remedy the large gap between what administrators and teachers report are dire needs of the schools for fiscal 2018, budget subcommittee Chair Kirsi Allison-Ampe presented a proposal to use special-education circuit-breaker funds to cover the most pressing deficiencies. Circuit-breaker money is given by the state to assist in covering some costs for special ed and for senior citizens.

The thinking of the subcommittee is that because that money is customarily put in a special account and not used the next year, part of it could be used to meet fiscal 2018's needs and paid back over time. "With big needs in the schools, we should not sit on a big pot of money if not necessary," Allison-Ampe said.

Budget subcommittee member Len Kardon analyzed the situation this way: There was a significant increase in students this year, and Arlington schools are reimbursed one year in arrears, but the schools waits an additional year to spend the money. He urged spending it in fiscal 2018 budget.

The 2010 surprise

His comments raised some unhappy financial history -- the $1.5 million problem found in August 2010, after that year's budget had been approved. The issues that time also involved rising special-education costs as well as circuit-breaker budget cuts, but in 2017, Kardon said, the schools are in a much more fiscally stable environment.

Committee members said that this proposal needs to be discussed more after the tentative state budget is released at the end of the month. Allison-Ampe warned that the financial situation "will not get better until the formula [for school finances] is changed." She was referring to the state's Chapter 70 foundation budget.

Member Jeff Thielman looked ahead to 2019-2020, when town officials expect calls for an override.

For the near term, Superintendent Kathy Bodie said her staff is "looking carefully to see if some monies could be freed up" in the current budget. CFO Johnson said she much preferred trying to find funds in the current budget rather dipping into circuit-breaker funds, referring to the problem in 2010, when state reimbursements were radically reduced in the face of a national recession. At the time, Johnson had been on the job 11 months.

Following that August 2010 surprise was a special audit as well as action at a November Special Town Meeting that year. 

In other budget business, the committee voted, 5-0-2, to accept the town's appropriation of $60,928,485 to the school department. Abstaining were Bill Hayner and Kardon. The latter said at the meeting that he abstained because he thinks the school budget should be determined before approving the town number. Asked to explain his vote, Hayner wrote Jan. 16: "I feel that we are the advocates for the education system and it is the Town Meeting obligation to accept or reduce the budget we bring."

Committee incumbents Hayner, Paul Schlichtman and Jennifer Susse have taken out papers to seek reelection in the April town election. To date, there is no potential opposition.

Committee-members budget priorities

While the amounts of money for specific school-budget requests are not yet known, committee members were asked to state their priorities. The committee was divided as to whether the schools' first priority should be hiring additional teachers or relieving the pressure on the administrative staff. All members, however, acknowledged the need for both. Kardon and Allison-Ampe emphasized the importance of "putting teachers in front of classes" as the top priority. Cindy Starks, a teacher, also supported teaching and learning first.


-- See all links to Dec. 8, 15 budget requests >> 

-- See Ottoson budget presentation >> 

-- See budget requests (special education, Ottoson, high school) >> 

Thielman, an administrator of a nonprofit, said he recognized the need for teachers yet was persuaded by the need to restore the third dean position in the high school. He pointed out that without an adequate number of deans to handle students' issues, the teachers' work is compromised.

Schlichtman, a school administrator in Lowell, concurred with need of additional administrative position to support the teachers. He suggested that research be done on ways to assist principals to reduce their workload. He also agreed that the restoration of the third dean in the high school was "very necessary."

Hayner, a retired teacher, pointed out that the new evaluation process for teachers "was too time-consuming" and there should be "ways to free up administrators to do their jobs."

Allison-Ampe, a physician who does not practice, proposed that there be a trial of an assistant principal in one elementary school and then evaluate how much it reduces the workload of the principals. Another suggestion was to have a floating assistant principal who spends one day a week in an elementary school.

Hayner saw the need for more special-education funds as a top priority, especially to support ways to meet student needs to curtail out-district placements.

As another measure to assist students with social-emotional issues, Susse, a former philosophy professor, recommended that training be offered to current teaching assistants to improve their skills and as an inducement to others to take jobs in Arlington. She also recommended that the pay for substitute teachers be higher and, perhaps, permanent substitute teachers could be hired for elementary schools buildings.

School calendar

Bodie presented a first reading of the 2017-18 school calendar. Including federal and state holidays, school will begin for all students on the first Tuesday after Labor Day and end June 25. The latter date includes the state-required five snow days. If all the snow days are not used, school will end earlier. Kindergarten students will start school the first week.

The structure of that first week for kindergartners will be formulated by the end of January. School committee members discussed the benefits and problems with declaring the day before the holiday break, Dec. 22, a half day. At the request of some fifth graders, who cited the problems with tiredness and sugar highs, a professional day will be held the day after Halloween.

See the proposed calendar >>

See the proposed list of observances >> 

School-building updates

Superintendent Bodie made the following brief updates on the progress of school construction and planning:

Stratton -- on time; Thompson -– some delays because of drainage issues, steel frame to be up in early February; Gibbs -– delay, "took longer to figure out floor plans" to accommodate all the programs, should be formulated by February; Hardy -- in process of finding the correct amount for cost; High school –- working with the Mass. School Building Authority on enrollment numbers for its February board meeting.

Bodie announced a meeting for Tuesday, Jan. 17, at the Ottoson for viewing the provisional plans for the former Gibbs School. Teachers are invited to see and discuss them at 3:30 and parents at 6.

All the documents are expected to be posted in the schools' website at this link >>

Starks complained that the committee was unable to see these plans ahead of time, had been left out of the design process and consequently is unable to respond to requests for information.

Bodie also took this opportunity to again announce that the search for the new principal of the former Gibbs would be internal only. Her reasoning was that if the successful candidate is already a part of the Arlington School System, he or she could contribute to the planning before assuming the job the next year.

Moriah Tyrrell of the School Enrollment Parent Group send a Jan. 12 letter to Bodie and the committee requesting that the search be an open one, citing the benefits of considering "additional candidates from different backgrounds, ideas, and perspectives ...." Read the complete letter here >>

Another concern expressed by some parents was that an internal candidate would be burdened by assuming additional work duties while working full time within the district.

CFO job description

Prompted by the Jan. 6 letter from CFO Johnson, announcing her move to another position in March, the committee took up the job description for a new CFO.

Working from a draft -- see it here >> -- the school committees made the following suggestions for revision:

1.) Possibility of including number and kinds of evening meetings required;

2.) Trying to develop a new model for the CFO position;

3.) Have new CFO work on project management which takes a lot of the superintendent's time;

4.) Assist with negotiations with staff; and

5.) Leave description as is, so to quickly put out the advertisement, and shape the description once the committee learns of applicants' specific abilities.

The committee moved to allow the superintendent to make revisions based on School Committee discussion and pass on the document to town counsel for approval and then to personnel for distribute.

Many of the suggestions called for additional assignments for the new CFO. In her Jan. 6 letter to the committee, Johnson had cited the difficulty of working "without a full-time school accountant for over a year."

The motion passed unanimously.

World languages, Maine camping

In other business, the committee heard a presentations from the world-language program and the Summer Fun Program's new initiative for a Maine Camping trip led by Ottoson English teacher Tom Zerk.

Notably, the World Language Program has moved to an “immersion philosophy” in which all classes are taught in the language, including the first year courses. See the presentation here >> 

The Maine camping trip will include both mountain climbing and canoeing. Read about it here >> 

Chairwoman Susse eliminated the executive session from the agenda, citing the late hour, and ended the meeting at 10:06 p.m. The meeting began at 6:30.

Fiscal 2018 school-budget discussion

Dec. 21, 2016: Schools urged to add staff to address growing enrollment, emotional issues

Dec. 15, 2016: 7 elementary principals seek assistants in new budget

Official school-budget information

Aug. 25, 2010: Good news and bad: Schools to get $490,929 in US job funds, face $1.5m shortfall

Aug. 26, 2010: School Committee OKs plan to fill $1.5m hole -- from last year

Nov. 15, 2010: 2010 Special Town Meeting: School-budget fix, Thompson rebuild voted

This news summary by Jo Anne Preston, a YourArlington freelance writer who reports about the School Committee, was published Monday, Jan. 16, 2017. Bob Sprague updated the report Jan. 20, to add responses from human resources, as well as on Jan. 29 to clarify that the shortfall is in the current fiscal year, not a projected matter in fiscsl 2018.