HARVARD — In time for the winter break, the Harvard School Committee wrapped up their review of the draft 2012 School Department budget prepared by School Superintendent Thomas Jefferson. The Committee concluded their two-night budget meetings Dec. 20.
Before adjourning, the Committee agreed to send their budget blueprint to the Finance Committee with a caveat that minor fine-tuning may follow at their Jan. 10 meeting. As asked of all departments, Jefferson explained the budget is level-funded exclusive of step increases.
“We have done that.”
THE BROMFIELD SCHOOL
Principal James O’Shea and Assistant Principal Scott Hoffman fielded questions about the Bromfield Middle-High School budget. Their salaries, along with the salaries of Bromfield’s 47 teachers, were level-funded except for step increases but otherwise contained no cost-of-living increases. Negotiations with the teacher’s union stepped off earlier this fall.
Personnel is the main expense at the schools and the district overall. Bromfield’s personnel costs will increase by $110,887 to $4,166,014 in the coming year, comprising more than a third of the $11.26 million fiscal 2012 omnibus budget.
At Hildreth Elementary School, personnel expenses detailed for the Committee earlier in the month reflect a $114,033 increase next year to $2,721,814, constituting 24 percent of the coming omnibus budget. Outside of teachers and staff, the other major piece of the budget pie is district-wide special-education expenses, projected to increase $60,000 to $4 million.
At Bromfield, the population is projected to grow from 880 to 909 students.
They “always estimated higher,” said O’Shea.
Hoffman added, “You don’t know who is going to move to town, who’s going to private school and who’s moving out of town.”
No cuts in teaching positions are contemplated. In order to ensure adequate staffing, Hoffman said department heads have projected ahead the numbers of sections needed for each course.
“It’s guess work. We can be making adjustments through the summer. To get that sixth section, do we have the funds and what are we going to give up to get it? Because the courses are sort of consumer-driven.”
Added courses include honors Algebra 2, French 1, a sixth section of ninth-grade English and an added section of expository writing, and possibly a computer-programming class. Committee member Piali De hoped to see a computer programming class launch as soon as possible.
“I’d say moving forward basic programming skills are part of functioning in this highly technical world.”
Jefferson suggested such a computer class could be taught either by a part-time teacher or online by Virtual High School, depending on interest. The draft budget does not include funding or either a computer or world-religion course, as have been recently proposed.
The Committee discussed the effort to put a price on all the out-of-pocket expenses for families for extracurricular activities and other expenses not borne by the district.
“It’s the cost of educating students that goes unmeasured,” said O’Shea.
Data for both schools is to be compiled for the Committee’s review in January.
“If we don’t ingest the data, it will be too late again next year,” said De.
O’Shea agreed, “You don’t want parents to have to write a check every week.”
“We’re at a crossroads here,” said Jefferson about older computers at Bromfield. To refresh the fleet, Jefferson recommended the immediate purchase of 50 computers for $50,000 from Devens revenues.
“Delayed capital expenditures” were coming to roost at Bromfield, Jefferson said. The 50 computers requested represents about a fourth of all the computers at Bromfield.
The School Committee agreed on a voice vote to immediately purchase 25 computers to be dedicated to Bromfield’s computer-aided design courses. The present bank of 3-year-old CAD computers will shift to the digital photography classroom to replace those 6-year-old computers.
IT Manager Mark Lavertue and O’Shea also discussed the creation of a lab space where each student could be seated before a computer. The world language department has such a lab equipped with 6-year-old computers, which run software programs that do not demand much computer capacity. The two suggested that a separate lab, equipped with newer hardware, is needed to serve as a shared lab space.
“We have done some work,” Lavertue said of the recent addition of 30 new Smart Boards and laptops in the school. But other than the dedicated CAD, digital photography and world-language labs, “there is no other place to put large numbers of students.”
The Committee pondered how to proceed in the library-media center. In front of the media center, there are 16 4-year-old workstations that receive heavy use because “the kids don’t want to use the computers in the back,” said Lavertue.
A bank of computers, dating to 2002, lines the rear of the media center for shared use by the various courses. Jefferson called the machines “less than good… I’d say obsolete.”
“They’re basically antiquated,” said Lavertue. There are increasing instances when the computers, which operate on a Windows NT platform, cannot run applications.
While some computers have become dummy terminals with the heavy thinking shifted to a mainframe computer, “some programs are not compatible with terminal server environments,” Lavertue explained.
“We don’t necessarily have a progressive upgrade plan in place. We run things until we have a need to upgrade,” said Lavertue. “But we are at a point now that we need to start replacing some of the computers.”
The committee approved the immediate expenditure of $25,000 for the 25 CAD computers but urged holding off on approving the balance of the 50 computer request.
“I can think of many ways to skin this cat,” said Committee member Piali De. “What we need to do is have a plan for what software we want to use for what classes.”
Perhaps a server with clients would work well in the back of the library, De suggested. “Do we really need 25 desktops?”
She agreed, however, that the 2002 vintage computers must go.
“Throw them away. Throw them away tomorrow and I don’t care. The question is what do we replace them with?”
Lavertue agreed “wholeheartedly. You have to have an idea on what you’re going to run on those computers.”
Chairman Keith Cheveralls carried forward a frequently heard request from Bromfield’s Student Council — laptop computers. “Many would like to see laptop availability that they can check in and out of the library.”
Cheveralls also advised that “not every family has much access” to Internet services at home, which has made classroom assignments “increasingly difficult for them to complete.”
“Half of what you said, I don’t understand, honestly,” admitted School Committee member Kirsten Wright. “But I do understand having a big picture policy in place” to deal with the technology infrastructure.
Committee member Virginia Justicz agreed, noting there’s no place in the budget devoted to capital expenditures for computer hardware. “It’s been sort of catch-as-catch-can.”
In reaction to concerns about equipping a lab, Lavertue was going back to the drawing board to try to build a consensus on what’s needed and how best to design such a system. Hoffman said “it’s different now” than five years ago when he took his social studies classes to the library to perform research. Students are expected to perform much of their research online.
“If it’s just research, get everybody an iPad. It’s $500 bucks a pop,” said De. She also suggested students be permitted to bring in their own laptops.
“Maybe we get some more Cisco routers and let them use them in their classrooms” instead of “parading” them to the back of the library.
Jefferson said loaner laptops could pose problems between breakage, loss and theft. However, Jefferson said if a grant could provide a laptop for each student, “that would be a whole other piece.”
“If you’re looking at getting the most bang for your dollar — laptops are not the way to go,” advised Lavertue, citing maintenance costs. “Maybe a client server system with dummy terminals can work for a media lab. That’s a key point and that question is unanswered.”
The Committee agreed to reconsider the media center’s computer needs in February or March to provide time to gather feedback. O’Shea said the library’s needs are “critical” and suggested “I don’t want to see it put off six months.”
Lavertue made the case for a part-time IT assistant to provide basic help-desk answers for townwide computer users. The new post is included in the technology budget at $16,000. The helper would free him and his assistant to deal with bigger picture and more complex computing issues in the schools and at Town Hall.
“I’m at the point where I can keep things going but we cannot give the quality of service the town needs to just keep things running the things they should be running,” Lavertue said. “A lot of what I can do goes unutilized.”
Past attempts to fill those basic needs with students provided both “benefits but more pitfalls.”
Heavy demand is during the summer months and first two months of the school year, when students are largely unavailable.
Five years ago, Lavertue said town employees would have given an “outstanding” ranking to the IT services.
“But I can certainly say now you would not get 100 percent consensus. Some say they wait a week,” for help. “I’m the last person to come forward and say I need help but I need another hand to keep things running smoothly and to give people the quality of service that they deserve.”
Facilities Manager Mark Force explained he’s doing more with less. Budgeted this year for $1,007,269, next year’s proposed budget is $974,229. Maintenance is the only cost center being cut, overall, in the coming year. Wages consume a third of the budget. The cost of groundskeeping is split with the DPW.
Energy-conservation measures are projected to save $10,000 in electric costs next year and so will be budgeted at $190,000. Between variable frequency drives on pumps, a new building-management system at Bromfield and lighting upgrades, “We’re slowly getting it down, downsizing, but there’s always room for improvement on that,” said Force. Water-conservation measures from previous years have dropped the bill to $12,000. That utility will be level-funded next year.
Fuel expenses are projected to drop by $20,000 and will be budgeted at $120,000. Savings are projected from Hildreth Elementary School’s switch from oil to natural gas. A similar switchover is anticipated for the Bromfield School with a capital request pending for the $30,000 project.
Spending on maintenance equipment is to drop $4,000 to $2,000, down from the $6,000 budget. Still, the committee noted the school buildings were cleaner this year.
“We’re just trying to work smarter,” said Force.
“It’s working,” said Cheveralls.
Cheveralls challenged the Energy Advisory Committee to quantify savings realized through the school’s conservation efforts to “do justice” in the hopes to reinvest savings on further energy-reduction measures.