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June 10, 2014

Methuen: Mayor, superintendent agree on $79M budget for schools

METHUEN — The mayor and the superintendent of schools reached an agreement on a school budget proposal for next year totaling about $79 million after several days of negotiating and a nudge from the state to up spending.

The School Committee last month approved an $80 million spending plan proposed by Superintendent Judith Scannell, with only Mayor Stephen Zanni, who as mayor serves as chairman of the school committee, voting no.

Zanni told Scannell to pare back her request by $700,000, which would have brought the budget to the minimum required by the state, the level at which Methuen typically funds its schools.

But after a meeting with state education officials, Zanni added $356,060 to his bottom line at the officials’ request partly to begin repaying a penalty the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education says the city owes the schools for years of underfunding and partly to win approval for an energy efficiency project that includes upgrades to the high school ice rink.

“We’re in a better place with the state,” Zanni said. “The state is watching. I spoke with Jay Sullivan and he was very pleased we’re putting this in the budget, not only to meet net school spending, but to meet that penalty.”

Sullivan is executive director of the School Finance and District Support Center at DESE.

Zanni said he hopes that $356,000 would keep the city in DESE’s good graces when it considers waiving the underfunding penalty in the future and for approving a waiver from required spending for the energy efficiency project, which would be done by Framingham energy management company Ameresco.

“By putting this $356,000 in good faith forward, they can look favorably on the waiver for the Ameresco project,” he said.

Methuen schools have, according to the state, funded its schools below the minimum the state requires because of a difference in how retirees’ health care is counted. Many districts count it the same as Methuen, but fund their schools enough above the state minimum that it has not had an impact.

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