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At joint meeting, boards examine school budget

by | Jan 13, 2024 | Education, Featured: Education

The School Committee on Thursday presented its fiscal year 2025 budget of $63,244,790, an increase of $3,207,037 (5.35%) over last year during a joint public hearing with the Select Board and Appropriation Committee.

Select Board members, while recognizing the figure as close to the 4.4% cap requested, emphasized that bridging that gap is especially important given the amount of capital fund requests the town is facing, largely from the schools.

“We have a capital plan that will continue to challenge the available funding for the operating budget,” said Select Board chair Muriel Kramer. “We look forward to supporting all departments but need to make sure with all these moving parts, we present a balanced budget.”

The proposed school budget has $1.5 million in contractual obligations and $701,508 in staff requests for 9.45 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions, including a second assistant principal at Hopkins School.

The other staff requests include a custodian, building and grounds assistant director, teachers, an athletic trainer, paraprofessionals, counselors and music instructors.

School Committee member Lori Nickerson asked if the town takes the cost of contractual obligations into consideration when settings its guidance amount. She said the school budget proposal is “actually rather miraculous” when that is factored in.

Select Board members assured her that they understood the ramifications of contractual commitments.

Select Board member Mary Jo LaFreniere noted that it is “very heartening” to see the town departments working together and the percentage difference between the guidance and school requests at 0.9%.

“There were years when those [gaps in] percentages were outrageous,” she said.

Town Manager Norman Khumalo said the budget process is on schedule and described it as a “complex, dynamic balancing challenge.”

Khumalo said the 11.9% cost increase for school and town department employee benefits and health insurance makes him concerned that funds may be insufficient.

Although state aid in October was projected to increase by 5%, or $555,000, indications are the state’s tax revenue is “failing to meet its targets in the [current] fiscal year,” Khumalo said.

He said the state reportedly has a shortfall of 4.1%, or $600 million, in the first six months of the fiscal year (2024).

During her presentation, Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh noted there are 604 students who qualify for special education, with 36 receiving services out of district. She compared that number to 442 in FY 2019 and 480 in FY 2022.

Conversely, there are fewer students needing services to learn English, a decline of 65 students from October 2021 to 2023.

The superintendent described moving from the design/build phase of programs for social emotional learning (SEL) to maintaining what had been created by a director, and removing that position.

She said SEL duties in the classroom would move to Assistant Superintendent Jeff LaBroad, while data would fall under the purview of an assistant principal and adjustment counselor. Finally, the director of student services also would oversee the initiatives.

This discussion was all in conjunction with freeing up money to pay for an additional assistant principal at Hopkins School.

Assistant Superintendent of Finance Susan Rothermich reviewed capital items, including the Hopkins addition request of $46.7 million, $1 million for the Marathon playground and additional items such as track and field design and engineering at $350,000, district technology at $100,000, district HVAC at $700,000 and vehicle replacement of $80,000 from the revolving account.

Appropriation Committee chair Michael Manning asked whether the track could just be resurfaced as in the past and eliminate other work being contemplated in that overall request.

Rothermich replied that the track was at the end of its life, and resurfacing would be insufficient. She said the request for design and engineering would better break out possible work to be done there.

“The community can decide then based on real numbers,” Rothermich said.

Regarding the proposed Hopkins School addition, School Committee chair Nancy Cavanaugh said moving the sixth graders to that building would save the town money in capital requests going forward, by eliminating a need for an addition to Hopkinton Middle School.

Kramer emphasized it would be a “saving on future potential borrowing,” in reality.

“We have to be vigorous as we come to terms with the impact of the capital budget,” she said.

Although it was a public hearing on the budget, no community members attended to ask questions.

Next week, the School Committee will meet again to adopt the budget proposal.

HVAC possibilities outlined at Hopkins

During the regular meeting, Rothermich talked about the HVAC (heat, ventilation, air conditioning) system as it relates to the Hopkins addition project.

She said according to a CMTA electrification study last April, the existing energy use impact (EUI) is 65% natural gas and 35% electric.

She said during renovations, three components would be touched as part of the project.

Rothermich said the existing base cost of $46.7 million has $892,000 for in-kind replacement. However, if the town wanted to use ground source heat pumps, a “green alternative,” it would cost $1.8 million or an additional $920,000, not including rebates.

She said the town approved $1.2 million for district-wide HVAC in FY 2024, and that money would be enough to cover Hopkins’ needs if it chose to go the greener route.

For units not part of the project’s scope, in-kind replacement of air source would be $1.1 million versus $1.2 million for a “green” alternative, or $112,000 more.

A capital request in FY 2025 seeks $700,000 for HVAC district-wide. The balance from the prior year allocation ($330,000) would be “close to covering” the green alternative is that is the direction the district wants to go, according to Rothermich.

Nancy Cavanaugh asked about the availability of rebates, such as what the Elmwood School project anticipates.

Rothermich referred to an upcoming meeting with MassSave and Eversource where more information would be forthcoming.

She said the possibility of Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) rebates is “undefined,” and new buildings are handled differently from renovations.

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