Unofficial Minutes: Budget & Finance Subcommittee Meeting on 3/28/2016 – Key Points and Commentary

Note: These are NOT official minutes.

Subcommittee members: Jean Fitzgerald, Superintendent; Charles Kellner, Director of Business Services; John Portz, Chair; Guido Guidotti; Candace Miller

Attendees in the audience: Donna Ruseckas, Director of Wellness & Extended Services; April Romano, Early Childhood Coordinator; Elizabeth Kaplan, Lowell Principal; Bob LaRoche, Hosmer Principal; Mena Ciarlone, Cunniff Principal; Shriley Lundberg, WHS Principal; Megan Slesinger, FAPA Coordinator; Laura Rotondo, CTE Coordinator; Toni Carlson, K-12 Educational Technology and Library Coordinator; Kendra Foley, Vice Chair, School Committee; Eileen Hsu-Balzer, School Committee; Liz Yusem, School Committee; Tom Tracy, Auditor/Assistant Town Manager for Finance; Lisa Feltner, Town Councilor; Kate Coyne, WSS member; Alyson Morales, WSS member; Zlati Shishkova, WSS member; David Stokes, WSS member; Mike Shepard, and others.

Agenda: 

1. Revised List of New Positions

2. Grant History

3. Revolving Accounts

4. Preschool Tuition

5. Budget by Cost center

6. Budget by Object type

Mr. Portz opened the meeting, clarifying that this is the 3rd meeting discussing the budget and some of the related issues.

1. Revised List of new positions (handout was given)

Since last discussion in February, the updates amount to only 5K and they were:

a) Hosmer is getting a full FTE (instead of having only a .5 of an Intervention Specialist and part of an ESL teacher) which covers both roles and saves health benefits for a second person. 

b) Increased District Clerical expense

c) Requested to keep a door monitor position at Hosmer, instead of adding a secretary.

All listed positions total $1,146,282 of which some are paid by the revolving fund to make the total $1,117,792.

2. Annual Grant Allocations (handout) 

We have three big lines that we will not be moving forward in 2017: Foundation Reserve Awards (pot hole) at $250K, Physical Education Project Carryover (PEP) $117K , and MOVA antiterrorism Emergency Assistance Grant $150K. For the SPED Circuit breaker in 2017 we are assuming a 70% level based on recommendations from state organizations. Schools are also allowed to carry over unspent funds from previous year (for up to one year). Last year the carryover was $335K, and for FY17 it is projected at $806K.

3. Revolving Accounts (handout)

The information on this handout was to show a 3-year Summary comparison report. Most of the surplus funds are under the Community Education: Umbrella/adult ed/Elementary Schools after/before school/summer school/vacation enrichment. Some of these funds are used to offset summer school and pay utilities. The surplus in the Athletics section still had many outstanding bills not paid so that amount should go down substantially along with transportation.

4. Preschool Tuition 

There was a request to increase teacher pay by 3%. The last time there was an increase was 3 years ago. There were comparisons to other preschools in the area (Arlington/Belmont/Lexington/Newton). Candace Miller on the School Committee asked if this is where we should be putting increases since great preschool is a large part of getting a good education. She asked if the increase would keep families from sending their kids to the preschool. April Romano stated that she believed that this would not make much of a difference, that if a family could not afford them now this amount (approx. 20$/month) would not matter as these families could not afford the amount currently. Also that they have an excellent program and a great preschool for the cost. The preschool classes are integrated classes where 51% of the class is made up of typical children while 49% are children with special needs. The School Committee voted to bring this up to the full School Committee which would allow for more discussion.

5. School Budget by Cost Center (handout)

There is a small upward fluctuation in the budget by cost center compared to last year. The greatest increases are in District leadership, District Curriculum, and Special Education.

Overall, the budget recommendation for 2017 is $ 44,149,696 while the 2016 base budget was $ 41,452,000 -- an increase of 6.51%. If the one-time money is included, the budget increase would be the total budget last year to 41,827,000 or a difference over last year of 5.55%. This year we do not have any 1x spending so that the base will be 44,149,696, if approved.

6. School Operations Budget by Object Code (handout)

There were many questions as to why the increases or decreases were so great. Mr. Kellner explained that the account codes are based on Town Appropriations and do not reflect all expenditures/budget (e. g. one-time grants) and a number of programs are funded – partially or fully -- by other sources. As those other sources are obtained or exhausted we see big jumps in the need to request more/less funding from the town, while the expenditures do not change that dramatically.

Ms. Miller pointed out that it is hard to interpret what the numbers are saying without information on all expenditures of the district. Ms. Hsu pointed that this handout is packaged for the town.

Commentary (Kate Coyne):

Budgets are complicated and we have made strides towards making the budgets more comparable to previous years and understandable. This said, I have attended all the Budget and Finance meetings and I still desire an overall better way to show the budget. We need to a) tell a story(put some context around the budget) b) most or part of this story could be tying in a subset of our 3 year plan goals c) Show a better representation of where all the funding is coming from (the main buckets and what main areas are feeding from these buckets). John Portz did mention that we all have to keep in mind that funding comes from many different sources (grants/State/town), that we need to remember this when looking at the overall budget. Without a good representation of the funding, how can anyone, other than those very involved, understand year to year where the funding is coming from, what funding may dry up, what areas can we look to for more funding….

Here is an example from our neighbors in Waltham:

http://www.walthampublicschools.org/…/FY2016%20Budget%20-%2…

Our school budget is one of the biggest in town and needs to tie to concrete goals set for a multi-year vision. I know others have expressed these concerns and I’m hopeful that we can look to make the budget much more informative for all residents in Watertown.

On a side note, for the preschool it would be great to compare our preschool prices to that of similar demographics (Waltham/Dedham). That said, 3% over 3 years may be reasonable too.

Commentary (Zlati Shishkova):

This was my first sub-committee meeting and I’ll share some of my impressions.

I found it very difficult to engage in a meaningful discussion without information on all expenditures in the district over the last and current years, so that I can ask intelligent questions on the projections for FY17. It may not be part of what is presented to the town, but for me it was lack of transparency that does not play in favor of involving the community.

Furthermore, although some of the school committee members were very knowledgeable about the numbers in the handouts and readily answered questions, they did not lead a narrative outlining the big changes and explaining what they mean (for except the list of positions). Given the large amount of data in some of the handouts, an interpretation would have been quite helpful. Also, much can be done about structuring the information so that it is easy to analyze/compare: using graphs in addition to tables, including amounts as % of totals or change, indicating what is included in umbrella accounts, removing zero-balance discontinued programs, etc.

It was surprising to me that there was no talk about the district priorities, or how a spending or a change in it is related to a goal/vision. For the most pressing current issue of all (overcrowding) nothing in the budget suggested preparing to address this problem. I sincerely hope that all of that was discussed in one of the previous meetings and was not repeated for the sake of saving time, or there is a big gap to fill in.

Written by: Kate Coyne and Zlati Shishkova