PEPPERELL — A preliminary North Middlesex School District budget for fiscal year 2008 of $41 million includes transportation costs but does not include payments on bonds or the amount of anticipated state aid that could reduce the figure.
That’s the bottom line to a status report given to the Finance Committee by District Superintendent Dr. Maureen Marshall and school business manager Gerald Martin this week. The figure reflects a level-service approach with no additions other than the potential to establish a full-time kindergarten, Marshall said.
The kindergarten program depends upon receipt of a $100,000 state grant that represents half the cost, she said. The other half would be added to the district’s budget.
“This is a level-funded budget plus the kindergarten piece. We have included some cushions but substantially no new numbers,” Marshall said.
The largest unanswered question for the FinCom is a potential increase in Pepperell’s minimum contribution to the school district budget. A new but more “straight forward” state aid formula, that includes calculation of the aggregate wealth of a community (per capita income plus assessed valuation) is the cause, Marshall said.
“If I were Pepperell and looked at the increase in per capita income and land value over the past 10 years, I would suspect a substantial increase in the minimum contribution,” she said. “We have no real numbers from the Department of Education yet or from Gov. Patrick. Everyone is vying for position.”
The budget estimate includes a $7.3 million increase in health insurance costs for working and retired educators, which represents 17 percent of total known expenses. Newly-negotiated teacher contracts show an 80/20 health cost ratio, with 80 percent paid by the district. This is a change from the former 90/10 ratio but still lags behind the 70/30 ratio for municipal employees.
Special education costs represent another 17 percent increase in known expenses.
Marshall said administrators will be working to make more effective use of high school staff and will be using a lot of contracted services.
FinCom Chairman Christopher DeSimone, noting the 2.25 percent non-salary increase allowed in municipal departmental budgets for FY08, asked if “discretionary” items such as the kindergarten change could be “held back” in the event the minimum town share of the school budget increases.
“I worry about kindergarten. We will be audited next year,” Marshall said. “We need either all full-time days, or all half days. We can’t afford not to. Early learning is the best place to put our money. It is critically important and I would take it off the table very reluctantly.”
“As we look at kindergarten, there is substantially more time spent with full-time,” she continued, “and there is a huge difference, a disparity, between those who attended half-time and full-time at the first-grade level. I worry about it from an equity viewpoint. I’ll be happy to come back when we have numbers.”
Marshall said North Middlesex is one of 17 districts to receive a $50,000 five-year Teacher 21 grant for professional teacher development and that she hopes to acquire further grants.
She said administrators are evaluating where teachers are needed most, given shrinking overall enrollment.
“So there are no glaring issues such as the lack of a guidance counselor at the middle school?” asked committee member Stephanie Cronin.
“”That is a glaring issue and the school committee understands that,” School Committee member Frederick Wheeler responded. “We had no money. Middle school is a transition period fraught with danger. (The lack of a position) is a weakness in the system now.”