January 12, 2018
It’s hard to believe that the school year is half over already with mid-term exams just being completed. This also means that we’re well into the school district’s budget planning process, which has been revised substantially to allow more sharing of information and input from our town officials. To this end, the district is sharing a wealth of information about the process with everyone even earlier than in the past. For anyone wishing to see and review the information, go to the Gateway website (www.grsd.org) and click “budget” in the information drop-down tab. To date we have had presentations to the school committee and town officials from the elementary, middle, and high school administration, from pupil services, an historic overview from central office and an overall look at the FY’19 budget as well as a projected line item budget with a summary of major changes.
The school committee made substantial changes to the budget process based upon the MARS Study Group findings and has been pleased with the number of finance committee and selectboard members who have been participating in these meetings from our six towns. To effect this change, we started the budget process two months earlier to allow time to share information, are discussing needs and taking input from all participants, and have provided two basic budget scenarios: a level-service budget and a budget listing the additional items recommended by individuals, groups, and the results of both our annual audit and last year’s MARS study. As we move forward over the next two months, the committee will formulate a recommended budget based upon its ongoing discussions and interactions with our town officials.
Understanding the financial constraints faced by our member towns and experiencing the same inflationary pressures from utilities, insurance, and wages, we started the process with a ‘level-service’ budget scenario. Under a level-service budget, we move all the services provided to students this year into next year and adjust for increased costs (again some of the larger drivers are utilities, insurance, and wages) but don’t add any new staff or programs. This would be identical to towns’ budgeting from one year to the next to provide the same services without adding new costs.
There is often talk about a ‘level-funded’ budget, which is spending the same amount of money spent this year for next year’s operations. As would be expected, this usually results in a significant reduction in some sort of service because the increased costs in utilities, insurance, and wages have to be made up somehow. Given the past several years of very lean budgets (in fact the level-service budget for next year would only be 0.25% higher than in FY’14!) there isn’t any easy way to reduce costs without cutting staff, but we will be sharing all of this information with the committee and town officials as part of the budget development process (which also means that it will be shared with the public on the website immediately after each meeting).
We’ve also heard from some town officials that the school (and I assume the towns as well) needs to be at a ‘level-cost’ budget. For the school, this means that town assessments wouldn’t increase at all from one year to the next and—based upon state and local revenue—would have historically meant an operational budget for the schools that is even less than a level-funded budget, because the district would be forced to cut additional expenditures to make up for any loss in revenue. In reality this means that after cutting expenditures to get to a level-funded budget, the district would then have to cut even more from the budget to make up for any losses from revenue (meaning the state primarily) as well as any changes in town assessments based upon changes in student population. Remember that only two towns had significant increases this year while others saw decreased assessments due to changes in student percentages from each town. Thus this year’s budget would have had to be reduced by an additional $570,000 or more in order to reach a ‘level assessment’ budget for all towns.
What the ‘recommended’ budget finally ends up being will be determined by the school committee from ongoing discussions during the joint budget sessions with the school committee and town officials. The hope is that with this additional input and greater understanding by all parties, we can develop a budget that is supported at town meetings without the need to hold multiple special town meetings or having the state set the school budget for the 2018-2019 school year.