EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 16, 2013

Schools: money problems need discussion now

Budget details still not public, according to officials

By Dustin Luca
dluca@eagletribune.com

---- — ANDOVER — With the budget process rolling forward and still no school numbers on public display, the School Committee is hoping town boards will meet and discuss what some describe as a broken process that must be fixed before it gets worse — except the need to meet isn't mutually felt.

The School Committee gathered yesterday for a budget development workshop, where they discussed problems they see with the town's current budget development process.

In January, School Committee and Superintendent Marinel McGrath declined to provide Town Manager Reginald "Buzz" Stapczynski budget details on deadline. The numbers were held because the schools need more information on town revenue forecasts, which Stapczynski has said technically puts them in violation of the town's charter since they didn't give their numbers when expected to.

Moving forward in the current budget process, Stapczynski allocated a 3.3 percent increase in the school's budget over last year, taking them up to around $68 million for the coming fiscal year in the projected $157 million budget. In their explanation for why they didn't provide the details, school officials said the allocation isn't enough to cover their necessary costs, and a dialog needed to take place to go over the mitigating factors driving cost increases.

Part of the problem, according to School Committee member Annie Gilbert, is how the town views level services — the idea that Andover provides its residents the same amount of services, and taxing reflective of how much that costs.

The concept has driven Stapczynski's budget numbers for this year, he has said.

But providing level services in town departments isn't as costly as it is in a school department, according to Gilbert.

All over the state, to carry level services in schools from year to year, "you're not only doing what you did last year, but you're meeting the new enrollment-driven needs in the coming year," Gilbert said. "Typically, the reality is it's a four to five percent increase every year, and that's not doing new initiatives and innovations, Chinese language programs, or anything. That's to keep the ship moving."

Over the last year, school needs have changed in several areas. More than 60 new students entered the system, adding a substantial cost to the town, according to School Committee member Dennis Forgue.

Inversely, showing how dynamic the schools' statutory obligations are, the number of out-of-district special needs students dropped from 96 to 81, saving the town $750,000 in services it no longer had to pay for, Forgue said.

Joanne Marden, a member of the Finance Committee who attended the meeting, said that the schools' suggested annual increase was troubling for town finances.

"We will not have four to five percent per year given our current revenue base," Marden said. "If you say, well, we have to re-jiggle things [and take money from other areas], that's not sustainable. Over time, you can't keep shifting money. Eventually, whatever you're shifting from totally runs out."

The School Committee wants to meet so cuts aren't made that affect future years, according to Colby-Clements.

Using a $2 million cost to provide benefits to retired teachers as an example of statutory obligations facing the schools, Colby-Clements said the problems "will impact future years" if they aren't part of the discussion today.

Attempts to bring the three boards together have failed because, as Colby-Clements described it, others felt the discussion should wait until after the budget season is over.

"Even though we're afraid we don't have time because we're in the middle of budgets and we need to solve problems, we don't have the luxury of waiting to have these discussions," she said.

Tom Deso, chairman of the School Building Committee, said the lack of discussion "really distresses me" after previous budget seasons have moved so smoothly.

"Something's broken, and I don't know how it broke, but I can see there's antagonism now," Deso said. "After all the work to get where you got ... I remember last year how proud everyone was of the process. And now it's gone."

Not providing Stapczynski the details was the School Committee's effort to have a discussion on the problem without the as-yet unrevealed budget deficit distracting officials, according to Gilbert.

"We know so well that, as soon as we put out that information, there's a certain element of fixation — certainly in the parent community but also the other boards — about what is or isn't included," she said. "That becomes its own semi-circus that distracts from talking about issues like this."

The School Committee is slated to appear before the Finance Committee and Board of Selectmen Wednesday, March 6 to go over their budget request — two months prior to its presentation at Annual Town Meeting in May. It's expected that the March 6 meeting is when the numbers will finally be made public, according to officials.