PEPPERELL — The Board of Selectmen has gone on record in recent weeks asking for a $350,000 reduction in its portion of the 2011 North Middlesex Regional School District (NMRSD) budget, which has created quite a stir.
Fresh from a NMRSD School Committee financial subcommittee meeting last week, at which a budget scenario considering the request was released, Selectmen Chairman Joseph Sergi, with the blessing of his fellow selectmen, sat down in Town Administrator John Moak’s office for a late Tuesday evening chat to clearly lay out Pepperell’s concerns.
The following narrative hits the highlights of the session.
“We all know we’re in trying times. We’ve had two override votes in two years. The board feels we need to work collaboratively (with the School Committee),” Sergi said, and in an environment of accountability and transparency.
There has been little collaborative effort coming back to the town, as evidenced in the silence to several school-operation questions asked by selectmen and despite promised answers.
Last week the School Committee did however release a budget scenario from Superintendent Maureen Marshall that showed a reduction of $3.1 million based on the so-called “Pepperell Scenario” (the $350,000 decrease).
It is known that the $350,000 would have become an actual $720,000 budget decrease because Townsend and Ashby would be due a similar percentage decrease in assessment. But just how $350,000 transformed into the $3.1 million figure is one of the unanswered questions.
One challenge confronting selectmen when asking school- budget questions is that the board has no intent of trying to manage school affairs and considers itself unqualified to try.
“We also need to be cautious when we talk budget scenarios so as not to put parents and children into an anxious state,” Sergi said.
The “Pepperell Scenario”-based budget was voted down by the School Committee; however its proposed content strikes at the heart of selectmen’s concerns.
The $3.1 million cut would have removed language studies, some high-school teachers, the kindergarten program, some athletics, elementary-school guidance counselors, elimination of the middle-school library. More remarkable was the elimination of the elementary and middle-school music programs. Sergi believes this is nothing short of a scare tactic.
“Nowhere was there talk of reviewing administrative costs, freezing salaries or any other cost-saving measures,” Sergi said.
Numbers don’t lie
Looking at published school salary information in budget lines related to administration, there was a 7 percent or $180,000 increase from 2009 to 2010.
“Between the period 2008 to 2010, there was almost an 18 percent increase ($748,865) in no-teaching costs (administration, maintenance and support personnel,” Sergi said.
“A school budget is being forced onto the town with an increase in salaries, when in Pepperell we zeroed out increases and cut $500,000 from the existing budget,” Sergi said.
Last year the town used approximately $1 million in cash reserves plus passing a $647,000 override in order to make ends meet, and reduced operational costs by approximately $380,000 in order to close the budget shortfall.
In 2007, Pepperell had $1.72 million in free cash. By 2009, it had only $551,000.
During the same period the school district’s free cash increased from $177,144 in 2007 to $1.242 million in 2009. At a recent School Committee meeting, the school district’s auditors said the district is in good financial shape, Sergi said.
“Over the past four years our school assessment has increased an average of 5 percent each year. One year it was 11 percent,” Sergi said. “And in an environment of decreases in enrollment.”
In 2006 Pepperell had 2,252 students in NMRSD. In 2010, the number is 2002, yet its assessment is increasing.
“So when we look at giving this department additional dollars, we are due a comprehensive review. They need to function like any other department,” Sergi said of the school district.
He said, “Part of the Board of Selectmen’s challenge is that we are operating without any kind of collaboration with the schools. We’ve asked for information about:
* Teacher contracts;
* Non-teaching positions,
* Funding related to COBRA and health insurance,
* The status of shared services,
* Has reduced enrollment been factored into the budget and how;
* For clarification of how a request to cut $350,000 becomes $3.1 million;
* The status of the Peter Fitzpatrick School.
“It was the Pepperell Board of Selectmen who saved the School District $800,000 when it identified a problem with the debt service on the Peter Fitzpatrick School addition that if it had been closed and turned over to the town, the school district would have lost more than $800,000 in a state Building Authority Grant,” he said.
“Why do we have increases? We’ve been asking for this kind of dialogue.
“We don’t want to manage their budget. We aren’t educators. That’s up to the superintendent to have academic programs and educational incentives . . .within the framework of what we can afford,” the chairman said.
“We also take a caution when an Ashby School Committee member says it isn’t up to the School Committee to manage the town budget — their responsibility is around policy.
“When you see increases to noninstructional programs you have to ask why. When you see health-insurance costs increasing 8 to 10 percent, you must ask.
“We, the Pepperell Board of Selectmen, are saying be responsible and more efficient. Nothing is addressed regarding fundamental administrative changes. What about cafeteria food services? What about health-insurance cost which have been increasing by approximately 7 to 10 percent annually?” he asked.
Moak reiterated, “The Board of Selectmen isn’t here to tell the School Committee what to do. It is just trying to come up with what we can afford.”