HAVERHILL — The School Committee has preliminary approved a school budget in excess of $90 million and scheduled a public hearing on the spending plan June 6.
The committee passed the School Department’s proposal 4 to 1 at Thursday’s meeting, with committee member Scott Wood voting no and Mayor James Fiorentini abstaining.
The committee is expected to take its final vote on the budget the night of the June 6 hearing, which is set for 6 p.m. at City Hall. Thursday’s vote was conditioned to allow changes to the spending plan, pending the city’s financial contribution and state aid numbers that won’t be set until the Legislature and governor finalize the state budget next month. The new fiscal year begins July 1.
Wood said he voted no because he has concerns about several large pay increases for school principals. The school budget sets aside severance pay for three retiring principals based on allowing them to cash in dozens of unused vacation days. But Wood and other committee members said they established new rules several years ago that prohibit school employees from accumulating more than 10 vacation days at any time.
Superintendent James Scully said he would research the matter and provide an answer before the budget hearing. Wood said he would likely support the school budget once the principal pay issue is resolved.
Fiorentini said he abstained from voting because the school proposal is essentially a recommendation to the mayor. He said he expects to finalize his citywide spending proposal, which is subject to review by City Council, by the end of the month.
The School Department’s preliminary spending proposal was $90,638,215, an increase of $4,367,852, or 5.06 percent, compared to this year. That proposal included $509,000 to redo and expand school bus routes, however, which Fiorentini said previously he does not support. He reiterated that position Thursday, but said he is in talks with the superintendent to reduce transportation spending.
“The transportation budget has to be cut or I won’t support this budget,” said Fiorentini, also the School Committee chairman. “We can’t have buses stopping at every house. It’s expensive and it contributes to obesity in our youth.”
The mayor said he is also concerned the district’s special education costs are skyrocketing and that the school spending proposal does not include any money in reserve for unexpected problems.
“Special education is a time bomb,” Fiorentini said. “These increases are not sustainable. The costs have to be reigned in.”
Scully said the district’s new special education director, Theresa Senio, has been told to make cost containment a top priority.
The mayor also said he would like to see the district resurrect mandatory summer school for failing students. Scully said that is in the works, but the problem is getting students to show up.
“In the past we said, ‘if you don’t show up, you don’t get promoted to the next grade.’ That worked from what I was told,” the mayor said.
Committee members Paul Magliocchetti and Ray Sierpina said they are concerned that classes at the city’s middle schools have become alarmingly overcrowded. They said they are disappointed the budget doesn’t call for more teachers to address overcrowding.
“When I go around and visit classes, they look crowded to me,” said Magliocchetti, the committee president. “And if enrollments are going up as the superintendent says, I would think the budget would reflect the need for more teachers.”
Scully said the district has actually reduced class sizes in recent years. He said he would provide information showing class size at specific schools and grade levels before the public hearing.
The school spending proposal includes an additional estimated $2.9 million in state education aid and $1.4 million more from the city.
New discretionary spending in the proposal, Scully said, is very limited. He said it includes $35,000 to start a girls ice hockey program, $25,000 to reduce sports user fees at the high school, $18,000 for an intercom at Tilton Elementary School, and $75,000 for building security upgrades. He said the district will not be able to fund a rowing program next school like it had hoped.
“For the past two years, the School Department has been able to maintain services and gradually expand programs as funds have allowed,” Scully said in a budget memo to the School Committee.
Notable achievements, he said, include reducing class sizes and implementing the citywide full-day kindergarten, which will continue next year, Scully said.
The superintendent said student enrollments have increased over the last three years, especially at the high school. That trend is expected to continue next school year with an estimated 160 additional students, he said. The formation and expansion of the high school’s Classical Academy for high-performing students is a major reason for increased interest in the school, Scully said.