Higher insurance premiums, less aid adds millions to school costs

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By Katina Caraganis

MediaNews

TOWNSEND — If the North Middlesex Regional School Committee wants to keep the same level of services in fiscal 2012, it’s looking at a 6.7 percent increase in the budget.

That equates to a proposed budget increase of $2,845,200 over the current fiscal year’s figure of $42,772,859.

The School Committee met Monday night to work on the budget. It will present a final proposal at a public hearing on Feb. 28.

According to school board member Susan Robbins, who chairs the finance subcommittee, the board is not yet making any recommendations on the budget, but is looking at what the district needs to function at the same level.

Superintendent of Schools Maureen Marshall said the increase for the same services is due to a reduction in state grant money and an increase in health-insurance and retirement costs.

“The 6.7 percent increase in the budget when compared to this year comes from a very large increase in insurance and retirement programs,” said Marshall. “There is a huge increase in health insurance. Premiums are increasing by 14.5 percent.”

The district is looking at a $775,000 increase in its insurance while losing $500,000 in grant money for special education, and $700,000 in jobs funds.

The committee debated whether to support the increased costs or keep a level-funded budget, even if it means cutting services or teachers.

“I’m less inclined to go all the way to a level-funded budget,” said Robbins. “I don’t mean to drag out the process, but do we really need to be all the way down to level-funded? It’s not really level-funded. It’s this loss of revenues that’s kicking us. It’s just not the increase in costs. I don’t think I can support cutting $2.8 million away from what we have, especially knowing that next year we’ll see less revenue, putting us in even more of a crunch.”

Board member Robert Templeton said he would rather see larger class sizes over cutting programs that may be harder to add back to the budget down the road.

“In my mind, I don’t think we can go higher than level-funded,” he said. “I think we need to know what that means and I say focus on programs versus class size. I can handle my kid being in a class with four or five more kids rather than not getting access to programs. That’s me speaking as a School Committee member and a parent.”

Cutting programs is not the answer for member Sue Fitzgerald.

“It pains me to think about large class sizes in the high school, but it’s far easier to come back from that over cutting programs,” she said. “We need to give them (students) the best possible chance to get a good college placement. It gets harder every day. If you start cutting programs, it erodes the education we already provide these kids.”

Marshall asked the board for a clear direction, but said class sizes would be impacted greatly if it’s looking to level-fund the budget.

“If we can’t support the increase, then class sizes will be impacted,” Marshall said. “There is not much around that. Our budget is predominantly around personnel and there aren’t enough other things to cut $2.8 million. We will look at other places in the budget and we will look at what is best for the numbers. We have to look at everything the district does to try and drive numbers down so the towns will work with it.”

Committee Chairman Arnold Silva urged Marshall to put together a level-funded budget and bring it back to the board.

“We don’t know how hard it is until she does it,” Silva said. “As painful as that is, I think the towns will support that and we’ll see what happens.”