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School piggy bank is empty after making up shortfalls

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TOWNSEND — School Superintendent Dr. Maureen Marshall has said in the past that even if the towns’ overrides pass, there are long-term issues that will threaten school budgets in future years.

Marshall met with the School Committee last Thursday to give an in-depth explanation of why the school budget appears to suddenly be unsustainable, when it has always been manageable in previous years.

Using facts and documents from the Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE), Marshall laid out the argument that the reason why the school district appears to have suddenly overspent its budget is because the School Committee had been too quiet in the past about growing issues and should have asked for help from the towns sooner.

Compounding the problem, she said, is that “the state has shifted more of the burden of the schools to the towns.”

The schools are given a foundation budget every year, which is made up of local aid and state aid in the form of Chapter 70 money. The Department of Education shows that Chapter 70, the state funding for schools, accounted for 63 percent of the budget in fiscal year 1998.

In fiscal year 2007, it accounted for 54 percent.

While Chapter 70 aid to the district has increased by $3.6 million between FY98 and FY07, the local contribution has increased by $6.5 million in the same time.

Further complicating matters, the foundation budget has become further distanced from what it actually takes to run the schools.

In FY98, the foundation budget was over $1 million above the required net school spending, which is the minimum amount of money schools are expected to spend. If not spent, the Chapter 70 money will be cut back the following year.

Although varying from year to year, in FY07 the state assigned a foundation budget of $33.5 million and then stated that required net school spending was $35 million.

Even more concerning, the required net school spending has increasingly become insufficient to maintain the schools, which are faced with rising insurance and energy costs.

In FY02, the school spent $346,000 above the required net school spending. While the financial difference is large, it only represents 1.1 percent above the minimum. To reduce the financial impact to taxpayers, the School Committee used $215,000 from their budget’s excess and deficiency (E&D) account.

In FY03, the school spent $472,000 above the required net, or a 1.5 percent difference. The School Committee drew down $244,000 from E&D to fund the difference.

In FY04, the school spent $1.5 million above the required net, or a 4.9 percent increase. The School Committee spent $666,000 from E&D.

In FY05, the School Committee spent $2 million above the required net school spending, or a 6.2 percent difference. The School Committee spent $1.3 million from E&D to fund the difference.

In FY06, the School Committee spent $1.6 million above the required net, or 4.9 percent. The School Committee spent $76,000 from E&D to fund the difference.

In FY07, the school spent $1.5 million above the requirement, or 4.5 percent.

Marshall told the School Committee at Thursday’s meeting that after draining the E&D account of $2.5 million in five years, there wasn’t enough money left to do it again.

“We are tapped out,” said Marshall.

At the meeting, Marshall said it was typical for most schools to pay above the required net school spending.

Further review of information from the DOE reveals that North Middlesex’s highest percentage above the required net minimum is actually low compared to the state average. In FY07, Massachusetts schools paid an average of 13.5 percent above the required net spending across the 328 operating districts.

When added across the state, schools are spending over $1.1 billion above what the state requires for the net minimum of spending.

Marshall emphasized that spending above the required net school minimum wasn’t because the School Committee was overgenerous with contracts to teachers and administrators.

Marshall passed around a spreadsheet, printed directly from the DOE Web site, that listed the average salaries of teachers from every school in the state in fiscal years 2004 to 2006.

The average teacher salary at North Middlesex was $50,759 in FY06 while the state average that year was $56,369. Surrounding towns averaged about $2,000 higher in teacher salary.

In terms of pay increases to teachers, the contract signed between the North Middlesex Regional School Committee and the Massachusetts Teacher’s Association/National Education Association offers a 3 percent increase for each year from 2005 to 2008. In comparison, Townsend voted to give non-union personnel a 3.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment at last year’s town meeting.

As for school administrators, in FY06 the district spent $277 per pupil spent on administration costs. The average rate across Massachusetts was $376. School administrators salaries are high compared to many professions, but North Middlesex’s costs are in line with the rest of the commonwealth.

School Committee member Dennis Moore said he stands by the committee’s decisions to use. the E&D money in the past, thereby delaying cuts at the schools and avoiding tax increases for residents.

“The mistake we made was we were too quiet,” said Moore. “We never pointed out what we were doing.”

Marshall has stated several times that the school’s financial problems are directly related to the lack of funding at the state level.

Chapter 70 is based on student head count. If drastic budget cuts are required to match what Townsend and Ashby have said they are willing to pay, more students would probably be lost to school choice, and therefore even less state aid would be offered next year, said Marshall.