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Appropriation Committee considers school budget gap, future needs

by | Mar 28, 2023 | Education, Featured: Education

Following a budget presentation Monday, members of the Hopkinton Appropriation Committee told the School Committee that looking at long-term capital needs should be a priority.

First, Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh reviewed the district’s proposed $60.1 million operating budget for fiscal year 2024, noting the various twists and turns the process has taken to get to this point.

Currently, the Select Board put forth a school budget reflecting a 7.7 percent increase over FY23 for the schools. That total is $350,000 less than the budget the School Committee adopted. Both boards noted a caveat concerning part of that gap that could be grant funded through the Student Opportunity Act.

Assistant Superintendent Jeff LaBroad said he expected a decision on the grant to come “any day,” adding he had been checking periodically on its fate. It would be a one-year appropriation.

Chief Financial Officer Tim O’Leary said if the grant does not come through, $57,500 would be taken out of the amount proposed for the town’s OPEB (Other Post-Employment Benefits) Fund and $57,500 from the Stabilization Fund.

Acknowledging the School Committee does not endorse a budget less than $60.1 million, Cavanaugh said administrators created a list of items to bridge a possible $350,000 gap.

These areas include reducing two technology integration specialists to 0.6 FTE (full-time equivalent, a $120,000 savings); reductions of fine arts/business/technology/engineering requests at the high school ($45,000 savings); one-time purchases like furniture, shelving, maps, a tuba and textbooks, a $70,000 savings); and $110,000 in additional positions that impact teaching and learning (possibly grant funded).

While discussing factors affecting the operating budget, Cavanaugh pointed out growing enrollment and an increase in students with high needs.

The current enrollment of 4,209 students already is higher than the 4,160 students predicted by demographer Arthur Wagman for the next school year, she said.

The superintendent said the 10-year projection from Wagman is 4,745 students, while 4,900 students are predicted by the Massachusetts School Building Authority demographer.

Cavanaugh also outlined what is approximately 26 percent of the school population having high needs such as disabilities, English language learners, economic challenges and more.

These factors translate to having staff to address these needs, she said.

Cavanaugh also talked about how Hopkinton falls in the bottom 25 percent of the state in a half-dozen areas related to per pupil expenditures and in the bottom half in others.

“We’re a community that gets a lot of bang for its buck,” the superintendent said.

Increase in fees pitched

Appropriation chair Mike Manning said he is concerned about relying on a grant for personnel to fill in the budget gap. “The following year it will be something we have to fund ourselves,” he said. “I’m afraid we’re digging ourselves into a hole.”

Manning said the town is trying to look forward and find structure to support itself. He suggested the schools find other means of support and avoid using free cash.

Manning asked about the possibility of raising fees to increase revenue.

School Committee chair Nancy Cavanaugh said the board made a policy decision not to raise fees. Increasing transportation fees, for example, would mean fewer riders, she said.

She noted that traffic already is a major problem near the schools at peak times, and the addition of more vehicles would exacerbate the issue. Additionally, there are more families struggling financially, and administrators don’t want to exclude students from access to athletics or transportation, to name a few examples, she said.

The superintendent said yes when asked by Appropriation Committee member Caroline Lu whether the trend for supporting high need students was expected to continue. Lu emphasized the need to seek more federal and state funding.

Appropriation Committee member Bill Flannery said he also had concerns about relying on grants.

“Our job is to look at numbers and find money where we can,” he said.

Capital requests outlined

Susan Rothermich, the school district’s finance director, talked about the capital requests expected at this year’s Town Meeting. They include HVAC (heating/ventilation/air conditioning) district-wide at $1.2 million, HVAC testing at $98,520 and HVAC replacement and controls at $157,739. Those items will be packaged together and proposed to be funded through debt exclusion.

Also, Town Meeting will be asked to fund $800,000 of the $3 million “Phase 1” cost for the Hopkins School expansion. The remaining $2.2 million would be taken out of the school stabilization account.

Manning said the town’s anticipated five- and 10-year capital plans take his breath away.

“We have to find ways to bring those costs down [because] there’s real impact to the taxpayers there,” Manning said.

In the capital plan, the Elmwood School replacement project funding begins in FY25 with a cost of $40 million over 30 years. Concurrently, funds for the Hopkins School addition will be sought. Manning said he is more concerned about long-term debt and its effect on taxpayers than he is about the current $350,000 gap between the School Committee’s endorsed budget and the Select Board’s recommended total.

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