Deciding a 2.5% increase should be good for the schools as well as the town, the selectmen blasted through their budget work Tuesday night, March 6, with the snow storm looming, and sent the finance board a proposal for over $144 million in town and school spending for 2018-19.

The selectmen voted unanimously to approve a $38.3-million budget for town departments and roadwork that would increase this year’s spending by 2.5% — or 2.49% by Controller Kevin Redmond calculation.

The selectmen then echoed that in their charter-mandated “non-binding recommendation” to the finance board on the school budget — an increase “not to exceed 2.5%” for the Board of Education.

“We have to live with 2.5%, and they have to live with 2.5%,” said Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark.

With a current school budget of $92.6 million, Controller Redmond calculated the 2.5% as an increase of nearly $2,316,000 for 2018-19 school spending of a little over $94,949,000.

But the Board of Finance, not the selectmen, determine the spending levels for both schools and town departments that will be sent to voters in the May budget referendum. The finance board starts it work at the end of this month with a public hearing at East Ridge Middle School on Monday, March 26.

And the school board has asked the finance board for a $96,555,000 school budget that would increase spending 4.23%, or $3,922,000 — a request unchanged by the selectmen’s 2l5% recommendation.

To the selectmen the school board’s request seemed too much, especially in view of the school budget’s steady, continuing rise.

“A 4.23% increase — that’s almost $4 million,” said Selectman Bob Hebert. “Add that to the previous two years.”

Kozlark added: “$10.8 million over the last two years.”

Capital budget

The selectmen also unanimously approved sending the finance board a proposed $3,711,000 capital budget request, including the full $949,000 total sought by the school board. The schools’ capital request includes $475,700 worth of intertwined security and technology upgrades — 47 new security cameras and $69,000 for an entrance vestibule at East Ridge.

The capital budget also included a $725,000 pumper-tanker sought by the fire department, which is priced at $725,000 expected to have a net cost of about $690,000 after resale of some of the older equipment it will replace.

And the selectmen added $570,000 for a parking lot that would extend the current Governor Street lot northward, adding spaces for 63 cars.

The $3.7-million capital budget — paid for with long-term borrowing — is expected to add about $250,000 a year in debt service costs. But the town’s overall debt is down to about $63 million, and annual debt service is falling as the costs of the $90-million school bundle expire. Annual debt service is due to go from $11.5 million this year to $11 million next year.

“That’s a half-million in free cash flow that goes to services,” Hebert said.

School debate

But it was the school spending that dominated the budget discussions.

The selectmen’s flurry of budget votes came Tuesday, March 6, one day after hearing a lengthy presentation from Superintendent Karen Baldwin explaining the main “drivers” behind her $96,555,000 school budget request.

The budget would bump up staffing from 714 positions this year to 722 next year. That 722 includes 450 teachers, 27 administrators, 34 secretaries, 119 para-educators, 53 custodians, 23 nurses and therapists, 10 technology workers, and five operations managers.

Enrollment is anticipated to fall 74 students, from 4,912 this year to 4,838 in 2018-19.

Of the proposed $3,922,000 spending increase, $752,000 would be for special education, Baldwin said. The only areas responsible for more of the increase are “personnel contractual obligations” ($1,491,000) and “health benefits” ($1,043,000) for school employees.

Often, the special education dollars go to address “social and emotional” issues — as opposed to learning disabilities or intellectual limitations.

“It is challenging,” Baldwin told the selectmen. “We see more and more children with mental health needs.”

The 2018-19 budget contains staff additions, offset by some reductions.

Overall the budget would bump up staffing from 714 positions this year to 722 next year. That 722 includes 450 teachers, 27 administrators, 34 secretaries, 119 para-educators, 53 custodians, 23 nurses and therapists, 10 technology workers, and five operations managers.

Enrollment is anticipated to fall 74 students, from 4,912 this year to 4,838 in 2018-19.

Among eight new “certified” teaching positions, two are math specialists who would work in the middle schools, three special education teachers, two school psychologists, and a speech and language therapist.

Of eight new “paraeducators” proposed in the budget, six are special education staff.

“It’s driven by our need to meet the social and emotional needs of kids,” Baldwin said.

Selectman Steve Zemo saw costs only growing over time.

“The special ed community,” he said, “if that keeps rising, and the state’s participation in that keeps whittling away, how are we going to pay for that?”

“This is a huge problem. I don’t think you can throw enough money at it,” Hebert said. “What happened to the days when teachers were hired to teach and parents were expected to do the parenting?”