By Dustin Luca
---- — ANDOVER — The School Committee is $254,538 from balancing its $68.9 million budget, just four days from when voters adopt the budget at Annual Town Meeting on Monday.
Meanwhile, there’s a sense that the gap will definitely be closed in time. Now, officials are looking ahead to next year’s budget cycle in hopes that it won’t be as heated as this year was for town government.
The past cycle presented the School Committee with a number of challenges to consider after Town Manager Reginald “Buzz” Stapczynski gave the school’s a budgetary increase of 3.3 percent over last year’s approved number.
At the time, the committee said the allocation wasn’t enough to cover its contractual and federally mandated costs, including special education requirements. As Stapczynski prepared to present his budget on Feb. 1, the school department didn’t provide their side of the budget proposal, something he said put them against the town’s charter.
Since then, Stapczynski’s allocation for the schools has increased by $875,864, up to $68.9 million of the overall $147 million budget, according to school officials.
This includes a $293,532 pocket of cash from the town’s cable franchise fee, collected from all cable television subscribers in town as part of their monthly bill, according to the school department.
As it stands, the schools plan to spend $69.3 million — $375,643 more than allowed — in the town’s operating budget. However, the state legislature is forecasting more money from special education funding known as Circuit Breaker than in years past, according to School Committee Chairwoman Paula Colby-Clements.
That will give the department an extra $121,105 to bring the budget gap they’re facing down to $254,538, she said.
From there, “there’s a whole number of areas that the School Committee has to discuss” to trim costs even further, Colby-Clements said.
Though the department has only until the start of Town Meeting, on May 6 at 7 p.m., to close the budget gap, Colby-Clements said she’s confident the department will rise to the challenge.
After hearing the update, Finance Committee Chairman Jon Stumpf said that he’s “in favor of the balanced budget as presented, but I think, as everyone understands, there were some items that happened in the budget preparation process [this year] that we have an opportunity to improve upon next year.”
That would include discussing funding expectations during the budget development off-season, the months that pass before the development cycle for next year begins. In the beginning, school officials said the discussions didn’t take place, leaving town government ill-prepared for the challenges that the school department faced this year.
As it stands, the chairs from the three committees, who meet unofficially on a regular basis, have already committed to that process, according to Board of Selectmen Chairman Paul Salafia.
Annual Town Meeting begins on Monday, and officials are predicting it will run all three scheduled days — May 6, 7 and 8. All three nights start at 7 p.m. at the Andover High School’s field house.