SHIRLEY -- The Ayer Shirley Regional School District budget that Superintendent Mary Malone and Finance Director Bill Plunkett presented to the selectmen and the Finance Committee Monday night briefly laid out a $33,676,086 school budget for Fiscal Year 2019, providing a snapshot of the district's vision, goals and challenges and a birds-eye view of its balance sheet, including revenue, costs and "cost centers" and losses from shrinking state aid and gone-away grants, some of which paid for programs the district must still provide under state law.
"This is the story...by the numbers," Malone said. But first, she gave a brief account of the district's positive progress, including additional AP (college level) courses, improved MCAS test scores and fewer students attending other public school districts via School Choice. She also paged through a laundry list of outstanding needs and pending requests, ranging from supplies to software to field maintenance to an elementary school lunch monitor and a $50,000 Director of Student Services position.
Malone also noted that her own "ideal" budget pencils in several items for the Middle School, including Chromebooks, a media teacher and a part time director for the guidance department. It would up the total substantially. "But we're not asking for that," she said.
Told in more detail in the 62-page document Malone handed out, the budget story shows a "recommended" total, indicating there's room for negotiation before the assessment is finalized and the two member towns get their bills, based on a percentage split spelled out in the Regional Agreement.
The "total operating assessment," based on the recommended budget, is $19,405,997, up $568,890 over last year. That's a 3-percent rise, but Plunkett said the district kept a lid on it by "absorbing" into its operating budget some "fixed cost increases" for FY19. Absent those costs, the assessment total is reduced by $117,132, he said and the hike is less than it was for the previous year, FY18.
As one FinCom member pointed out, it's a "complex" budget, claiming the lion's share of the town's annual outlay. Tracing where all that money goes, Malone said 78 percent pays for employee salaries, benefits and special education, a budget "wild card" that is affected by sudden spikes and expenses beyond the district's control, including state mandates, special education programs, out of district tuition and transportation costs. The other 22 percent goes to operations, services, instructional supplies, maintenance, utilities and unanticipated costs, she said. In other words, everything else.
"We try to allocate funds" for new and existing programs with an eye to responsible budgeting, Malone said, coupled with the district's primary goal, which is "academic excellence" for all students.
But the figures as presented didn't sit well with FinCom members John O'Keefe and Mike Swanton. An increase of 2.8 percent over the previous year's budget, or $745,561 more than the regional school district's bottom line for Fiscal Year 2018 was too much in their view.
Swanton zeroed in on the district's excess and deficiency) account, which accumulates year to year and is basically surplus the state requires regional school districts to set aside to bridge big budget gaps or help pay for major expenses the budget can't cover. To date, the balance stands at $1,374,770.
While some of the money is typically applied to the annual assessments, after each town's required local contribution is factored in, Swanton said it's not enough and that the district should dig deeper.
"Knowing you need that buffer, it (still) seems reasonable to bring the assessment down more," he said. "This presentation doesn't show that."
"I see this as a starting point," he said of the budget, in particular the E&D, which he'd like to "poke a little more," he said. After all, he said, the town has services other than schools that it must provide.
O'Keefe called the school budget increases "unsustainable."
"You continually ask us to eat into other departments to pay for it." he said. Citing a five-year trend, he said the town's budget goes up about 2.5 percent per year but the municipal side gets shortchanged. "It looks like we've substantially decreased all other departments," over that period, he said. "What's your response?" he asked Malone.
"We try to hold the line," Malone said. But while acknowledging the problem, she urged looking to the state for solutions. At issue is local aid, which gets more anemic every year. The state mandates programs but does not consistently fund them and continues to fall short of the mark, Malone pointed out. She suggested writing to state legislators, as she has done, to make that case.
Selectman Enrico Cappucci suggested that the next time legislators visit to update the board on all the good news from the state house and to ask if there are issue's the town wants them to take away, it would be a good idea for ASRSD representatives to bring their issues to the table. Malone agreed.