In the red: School board weighs appropriation request

Layoffs likely otherwise, Superintendent Baldwin says

A one-time bailout request for the 2017-18 school budget is looking more likely by the day.

That was the consensus at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting, where district administrators spoke of an estimated $1.2-million appropriation request from the town that will likely be put forward at the end of March.

“It has become increasingly clear that we will be challenged to land this budget on fumes,” Superintendent Dr. Karen Baldwin told the board.

If that appropriation is not approved, Baldwin explained, the only recourse to end the year with a balanced budget would be to start laying off staff.

“In order for me to capture the savings if we don’t get the appropriation … the only way to do that would be layoffs,” said Baldwin. “And that would be extremely disruptive in the last quarter, but that is what we’d be up against.”

The district is staring down the barrel of a $1,263,757 year-end deficit, according to the superintendent’s office.

Baldwin enacted a budget freeze in September to avert a crisis. She told the board Monday that if the district holds back 60% of what remains in discretionary accounts, it will capture somewhere around $716,334, leaving the schools’ finances a projected $547,423 in the red by year’s end.

Costs and savings

In a three-page memorandum to the board, Baldwin highlighted five areas of concern that are driving the deficit.

Those include out-of-district placements for students with high special education needs, settlements with families of students with special needs, nursing services for three medically fragile students, the hiring of three unbudgeted elementary teachers after class sizes exceeded expectations, and a higher electricity contract rate that will run power expenses around $100,000 over budget.

Notably, the superintendent’s report left out the $241,098 that remains in the district’s plant expenses budget — used to pay for things like boiler, pump, or drain line repairs — thanks to an unexpected run of cold New England weather, which brought two weeks worth of single-digit temperatures and two water main breaks on school grounds.

“Maybe the winter will go away quietly, and we’ll get some of that money back from plant,” Baldwin said. “It’s possible that we could capture some of that $200,000.”

Reimbursement

Another possibility that could pay dividends is money coming back from the state to reimburse the district for the excess costs of particularly needful special education students. That grant was funded in the state budget passed at the end of October, the superintendent said in her report, and conversations with the state indicate the district will receive the full $1.4 million it budgeted for.

Baldwin also pointed out that the district is engaged in litigation over two settlement claims with families in the district. Those should wrap up by mid to late March of this year, Baldwin said. “The cost impact is unknown; however, we proceeded to due process because we believed we had a strong case.”

Special education

Reviewing the high number of out-of-district placements, board member Sharon D’Orso asked if there could be an alternative to costly out-placements.

“Should we be trying to building a program to meet those needs in-house?” she asked.

Baldwin argued that doing so would not only incur costs but would also take years of study and hard work before it paid dividends.

“It’s hard to build new programs when you’re tamping down and trying to contain costs,” she said. “It’s a perfect storm right now.”

Timeline

Part of the challenge will be determining when exactly to go to the Board of Finance with a final number for the appropriation request.

“We don’t want to go too soon, because we don’t know how much to ask for, because we haven’t even got the December monthly figures yet,” said board Chairwoman Fran Walton. “But we also can’t leave it too late, because should the Board of Finance choose to not give us all that we request, we cannot end the year in deficit.”

“And so our choices are extremely limited in what we can do,” she added.

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