The Wakefield School Committee unanimously approved a $27 million fiscal year 2012 budget at their March 8 meeting, which represents a 1.1% increase over last year’s budget and falls within the town’s guidelines.
At the February 22 meeting, Wakefield Superintendent Joan Landers and Business Administrator Michael Connelly presented two versions of a Fiscal Year 2012 budget, one, a $28 million “level service” budget, which represented an increase of 2.08% over last year’s budget, and the other an “adjusted level service budget” of $27 million budget, or a 1.1% increase over last year.
The difference between the two budgets is a deficit of $262,832, which the school department sought to balance by making reductions in several areas, either due to enrollment, retirement, or cutting back increases in certain areas that had been proposed to receive increases in the level service budget.
These reductions include reducing a special education contract with the May Institute, reducing a special education staff position due to enrollment at the Galvin Middle School, reducing a teaching position due to retirement at the Galvin Middle school, eliminating a proposed .5 reading specialist that was proposed in the level service budget, and reducing proposals for instructional supplies, including textbooks.
“We felt we could live with these reductions,” said Connelly. “None of the decisions are easy, but when it comes to working to reach reductions, these were the most advantageous and the best options at this point to get to the town guideline.”
School Committee Reaction
Several school committee members expressed gratitude that the budgets were handled in a responsible way, especially because there are several sources of one-time stimulus funds that were received in the last several fiscal years that the town is not entitled to this year, making fiscal year 2012 especially challenging.
“It is a compliment to the administration and the town for the ability to plan to become less reliant on the ARA funds over the last year and a half,” said School Committee member Tom Markham. “I think some of the cuts being proposed – cuts against increases - are probably the least impact against classrooms and teaching and learning.”
One concern raised by school committee member Anthony Guardia was that compared to other surrounding communities, Wakefield receives millions of dollars less in funding from the state through Chapter 70 funding.
“Melrose gets $4 million more than us and we see that Reading gets $6 million more than us,” Guardia said. “It’s frustrating because we are having a debate over $200,000. If we got the money Melrose got we would be talking about a $30 million budget, if we have the money Reading got we’d be talking about a $32 million dollar budget.”
Despite the passage of the $27 million FY2012 budget, there are still several unknown numbers that could affect the school’s budget.
Town employee health contracts are still in the process of being negotiated. They were initially projected at a 12% increase, but the most recent negotiations put the rate at a 16% incease in costs, according to Superintendent Landers, who said she received information from Town Administrator Stephen Maio earlier that day. This increase in health insurance costs would mean $300,000 less for the school’s budget.
Another unknown is the level of reimbursement from the state's circuit breaker fund, which is state reimbursement for special education services. In past years, the funding was reimbursed at 75%, but for the last several years it has been funded at 40%,. However, this year, the governor’s preliminary budget restored funding up to 60%.
The school department decided to anticipate a 50% circuit breaker fund reimbursement rate because they are unsure if the 60% rate will actually happen, Connelly said.
“The reason we didn’t want to go to 60% is the House and Senate Ways and Means Committee hasn’t announce their budgets yet, and some of the information we’re hearing is that the Governor’s budget is based on cost-saving initiatives and a lot of [Congressmen] think those may not be realized," said Connelly. "So we felt splitting the difference at 50% … was a good decision and a conservative approach,” he said.
If changes need to be made to the FY2012, Superintendent Landers said additional meetings would be held to figure out additional cuts.
“We are prepared to call emergency meetings in a timely manner if we needed to reduce the budget by $300,000,” said Landers.