Fiscal 2018 proposed budget (for discussion Feb. 9)

List of proposed budget reductions (not discussed by the School Committee Jan. 26)

UPDATED, Feb. 3: A projected shortfall in the current school budget has grown to $889,762, most of the increase from special-education out-of-district costs, and the School Committee is grappling with ways to address it.

School Committee logo

Despite the deep hole that must be filled by spring, when Town Meeting votes on the school budget, Superintendent Kathleen Bodie said she believed "we would be fine at the end of the [fiscal] year" if the school department used three sources of funds to close the budget gap -- from the special-education stabilization account, from the extraordinary relief fund and savings from current school expenses.

The stabilization fund, created to meet additional expenses, would need a Town Meeting vote to move money into the fiscal 2017 school budget. The school administration is applying for money from the extraordinary relief fund, established by the state to assist towns with unexpectedly high special-education costs.

Special-ed costs add lion's share

In addition to higher costs from special-ed out-of-district placements, teacher pay increases called "longevity raises" helped boost the shortfall of about $821,000 reported at the Jan. 12 meeting by outgoing Chief Financial Officer Diane Johnson to $889,762 reported to the committee on Thursday, Jan. 26. Causing the largest part of the shortfall, $776,538, was the difference between the projected cost of out-of-district tuitions (based on last year's bill) and what was projected to be this year’s expenses. The calculation for the projection was based on last year's expenses for out-of-district expenses.

Bodie explained that special-education costs and, in particular, out-of-district tuition costs, have "peaks and valleys." The variability of this budget item makes it very difficult to project costs, she said.

Committee member Bill Hayner accepted the explanation for the projected deficit in special-education costs but questioned why longevity raises, based on working in the school system for 13 or more years, could not be predicted.

Committee member Paul Schlichtman suggested that, instead of a special line item, these raises be treated the same as "steps and lanes raises" and each teacher's raise "be calculated on real data" that can be included in the budget.

Superintendent Bodie made available to the School Committee an early draft of the fiscal 2018 budget. Kirsi Allison-Ampe, chair of the finance subcommittee, said she has not yet had time to read it and then the discussion turned to the possibility of using circuit-breaker funds to pay for some important needs of the schools for fiscal 2018.

Circuit-breaker discussion

Members of the budget subcommittee again introduced the circuit-breaker option. The state provides these funds, in part, to local communities to defray the costs for special-education students. At Allison-Ampe's request, committee members and the superintendent engaged in an extended discussion of this potential use of some of circuit breaker funding to meet some urgent needs in the school system.

Schlichtman pointed out that since Arlington experienced a spike in special-education costs this year (primarily out-of-district tuitions), the town will receive a much larger increase in reimbursements from the state circuit-breaker fund. Traditionally, these funds will be "banked" for the next two years and then spend on some future costs. With so many essential needs in the schools unmet for next year, Schlichtman felt strongly that the some circuit-breaker money for fiscal 2018 "must be an option we have on the table."

Committee member Cindy Starks said several needs that principals and teachers considered highest priority were missing from the superintendents provisional fiscal 2018 budget: specifically, restoring the third dean position to the high school and increasing the number of teaching assistants.

Instead, in her fiscal 2018 budget, Bodie has reduced the number of teaching assistants by eight but moved a few responsibilities of the current two high school deans to the director of the emotional and social learning program plus added some contracted projects, "freeing up some time there."

However, Bodie replied, that the next year, with the addition of 60 students, restoring the third dean for the high school would be high priority. Unmoved, Starks responded that her position on the circuit-breaker proposals depended on meeting critical school needs and she considered the restoration of the third dean "as a must-have."

Hayner said he opposed using any circuit-breaker funds. He worried that the money would soon be considered a regular revenue stream. Moreover, he thought it was important to support the school administration, which was opposed to the use of circuit-breaker funds on the grounds that the funding can be unpredictable, or, in the words of the superintendent, "A wild card."

Allison-Ampe reported that the budget committee had no specific recommendation at this time but would like to further develop a proposal once the amount of the circuit-breaker money could be determined.

Budget subcommittee member Len Kardon added that although "we do not know the exact numbers but [we] have a baseline" of circuit-breaker reimbursement -- which has been very stable in recent years. He said the subcommittee would continue to work on developing "concrete numbers" once there is a state budget for reimbursement to see if some of the circuit breaker could be used to fund critical unmet needs in the schools.

Update on school-building projects

Superintendent Bodie reported on progress for the following schools:

High School -- The School Department has submitted all documents for the first stage required by the state. Members of the school Department will appear at the Massachusetts State Building Authority on Feb. 15 to move to a feasibility study. Currently, the Mass. School Building Authority and the school department have are coming to an agreement on an enrollment number of 1,755 students. This number will determine the number of homerooms. 

Stratton – Construction is on time and the school will open next September.

Thompson -- Additional classrooms are still scheduled to be completed by September. Some Saturdays may be needed to complete construction. Neighbors will be notified.

Hardy -- The project is at the stage of blocking out a rough estimate of costs for a six-classroom addition. The committee is having discussions about the possibility of increasing the size of the core areas, especially the cafeteria. This addition will be completed by September 2018. Currently, there is a peer review of the $3.5 million capital plan. The Hardy plans and budget will be the main focus of the School Enrollment Task Force meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 8, in the School Committee room, sixth floor, Arlington High School.

Gibbs – The plans are to begin renovation next July 1 and to open September 2018. The architects are working with teachers on space needs. Near the end of the meeting, Starks was unanimously voted to be the committee representative to the Gibbs committee.

Administrative searches

Superintendent Bodie reported on the searches for the new chief financial officer, principal of the Ottoson Middle School and principal of the sixth-grade Gibbs School.

The School Department has already posted the job position for the CFO, with interviews expected to start in late February or early March. The number of interviews will depend on the quality and depth of the applicant pool. The successful applicant will begin employment by at least next July 1 or earlier, if available.

The position for the Ottoson principal is being posted. The superintendent expects to form an advisory committee of administrators, teachers, counselors and fifth-grade parents. Bodie reported that she plans send out a notice to parents about the committee. This committee will not meet until early March.

Bodie announced that the search for the Gibbs principal takes place later than the other searches. The job description has not yet been written. Once it is written, it will need to be approved by the School Committee. The search will be exclusively an internal search. Bodie plns to convene an advisory committee in March. Bodie also announced at the meeting she would make available a stipend for the new principal to consult on the Gibbs before assuming duties in July 2018.

In a later communication, committee Chair Jennifer Susse explained that 1993 state Educational Reform Act gives the superintendent control over all personnel issues. The reasons given for Bodie to order an internal search are two-fold: 1.) the new principal will be available for educational planning for the Gibbs and 2.) the internal candidates are known to Bodie and have knowledge of the Arlington school system.

In other business, the committee approved the Arlington High School program of studies for 2017-2018, heard Lead Teacher Patricia Bellahrossi give an update on the Family and Consumer Science Program, participated in the second reading of school calendar 2017-2018, and accepted the 2018 AHS trip proposal to Barcelona and Madrid

The public meeting adjourned at 9:10 for an executive session to discuss contract negotiations.

Jan. 16, 2017: School Committee, stunned by 'surprise,' says it can address $850K shortfall

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

This news summary by Jo Anne Preston, a YourArlington freelance writer who reports about the School Committee, was published Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, and updated Feb. 2, to add a link, and again Feb. 3, to a fiscal 2018 budget link.