TOWNSEND -- The North Middlesex Regional School Committee voted 7-1 Monday night to certify a $45.96 million budget, a 2.07 percent increase from last year. The committee did not cut the budget as an official from Townsend had requested last week.
At the public hearing for the fiscal 2015 budget last Monday, Townsend Town Administrator Andrew Sheehan asked the School Committee to cut the budget to make Townsend's assessment level-funded. It would have required about $600,000 in cuts to level-fund Townsend and proportionally cut the assessments for Pepperell and Ashby, Business Administrator Nancy Haines said.
The budget as proposed by the School Committee required increases of more than 3 percent to the operational assessments for Townsend and Ashby, but resulted in a 0.46 decrease in Pepperell's operational assessment.
Superintendent Joan Landers said while she had looked into several cost-saving measures in the week since the request, reducing the budget further would negatively impact students.
"We cannot see further reductions without affecting programs and services to students," Landers said.
With state aid numbers still not finalized, she said cutting any further would be a risk she could not support taking.
In the week since Sheehan's request, Landers said the Finance subcommittee had considered several options for lowering the budget, including reducing opt-out insurance payments, the elimination of one custodial position and reduction to the classroom technology budget.
However, Landers said, cutting these items could affect student learning and lead to other costs that would negate a portion of the savings.
By reducing the opt-out payments, she said, the district would run the risk of more employees choosing to go back on the district health-insurance plan. Reducing a custodial position could mean more overtime payments, she said.
Landers also said she was reluctant to cut classroom-technology costs because of the detriment to students.
Initially, she said, the Finance subcommittee had considered a 4 percent increase from fiscal 2014, but had already pared the budget down by eliminating eight teaching positions.
Member Randee Rusch said she would also not support going lower than the 2.07 percent increase.
"We can't sustain a level funded budget. At some point we're going to end up asking for 8 percent from the towns in one year because we're cutting so much and we're going to have to make it all up," Rusch said.
School Committee Chairwoman Susan Robbins said the committee could still vote to lower the budget in the coming months based on changes to state aid or other unknowns. She called the budget with the 2 percent increase a "monetary cushion," but said the district could still choose not to spend the entire budget.
"We're going to continue to look at and continue to discuss it and keep the towns informed as we get more information," Robbins said.
Before the vote, there was some discussion about whether the budget adoption should wait in order to solicit more feedback from the member towns, particularly Pepperell and Townsend.
Members Anne Adams and Brian Edmonds suggested delaying the vote to allow the towns' more time to discuss the assessments.
"I'm concerned about going forward and Town Meeting and ensuring that we have the communities' support for all we're asking them to do," Adams said.
Edmonds said that because of the towns' pending votes on the North Middlesex Regional High School construction project, the School Committee is asking a lot of the towns at this time, and should communicate as much as possible.
Member Dennis Moore urged his members to make a decision at that meeting, rather than putting it off until just before the March 18 deadline.
"Either this is what we want to present to them or not. If we think we can make another cut, let's do it this evening. If we think we can't, let's do that this evening. But to hesitate and hedge is only going to make it look to anyone watching this that we think we can," Moore said.
Moore cast the only vote against approving the budget.
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