Selectmen scrutinize school budget for FY19

The Board of Selectmen reviewed the fiscal 2019 budget for Harvard’s schools Tuesday evening, with the Finance Committee also present. In advance of the meeting, the selectmen had sent more than 80 questions on the budget to Superintendent of Schools Linda Dwight and Peter Rowe, the school district’s business manager.

The selectmen are trying out the new budgetary responsibilities they would assume if the town adopts a governing charter at next year’s Town Election. Those responsibilities include presenting the Finance Committee with a balanced budget, of which the schools form by far the largest share.

Dwight said school administrators and the School Committee had worked to create a level-service budget, as directed by FinCom. The nonsalary expenses, she said, had been held to a 2.5 percent increase, which met the level-service target. But 80 percent of the school budget is in salaries, and those are expected to rise 4.2 percent next year, Dwight told the board. Part of that results from a 2.75 percent cost-of-living increase set for next year by the teachers’ contract. The rest comes from step and column increases—pay raises as teachers advance in seniority or gain additional qualifications. All together, the proposed school budget for fiscal 2019 came to $13.5 million, a 3.77 percent increase over fiscal 2018.

Dwight noted that the money the Harvard schools receive from MassDevelopment for educating students who live at Devens pays for a number of things that might otherwise be an expense to the town. She said the Devens fund covers the leases for iPads, MacBooks, and other technology, as well as about $40,000 to the athletic program, $900,000 in salaries, and some of the recent science lab upgrades.

Cuts, administrators, and costly contracts

The most basic challenge to the budget came from Selectman Ken Swanton, who said the schools would need to reduce the budget request by $125,000 to bring the whole amount to the 2.5 percent target. That amount takes into consideration a $40,000 saving to the town that does not show up in the school budget, because under the new contract, teachers are paying a larger share of their health insurance costs.

“If you had to get down $125,000,” Swanton asked Dwight, “how would you do it?” He had posed the same query in the written list of questions sent to the schools before the meeting. The schools’ written response noted that the town had agreed that long-term savings in health care premiums were worth the short-term budget overages in salaries, which were now set by contract. The only way to cut the suggested amount would be to reduce nonsalary costs below this year’s level, “so cutting $125,000 would require us to eliminate programs or services,” Dwight said. Facing the same question at the meeting, Dwight said deciding what to cut would involve long discussions with the School Committee.

Another question asked if the number of administrative positions in the schools had increased over the past 15 years. The new positions, according to the written reply, are an associate principal at the elementary school and a half-time dean of students at Bromfield. School Committee member SusanMary Redinger told the selectmen that Harvard has a ratio of about 0.55 administrative staff per 100 students; the state average, she said, is about 0.85 administrators per 100 students.

The schools’ costs for snow removal and bus transportation have both risen sharply, leading the selectman to ask about possible savings in those areas. Neither can be changed for the coming year because of existing contracts, Dwight said. But both contracts are in their final year, she said, and the School Committee is hoping that more competitive contracts will be possible thereafter.

Questioning Apples

Swanton and Selectwoman Alice von Loesecke, along with Jennifer Finch and Mark Buell of FinCom, all questioned the schools’ use of Apple technology, including iPads and MacBooks, rather than lower-priced competitors such as Chromebooks. Dwight asserted, “No district would say the quality is equal” between Apple and its competitors. But Buell maintained, “Apple is just not worth it anymore” compared to Windows systems. School Committee Chairwoman Mary Traphagen said the schools have leased these items, rather than purchasing them, and so can change if it seems advisable. She and Dwight re-emphasized that the Devens fund, not the town omnibus budget, pays for the technology leases.

As the wide-ranging budget discussion drew to a close, Traphagen pointed out that the selectmen had posed 84 detailed questions on the school budget this year, compared to just 18 questions from FinCom last year. This year’s questions were “an onerous amount of work” for the superintendent and the business manager, she said. “The budget is vetted many times before it comes to you,” she said, suggesting that the selectmen send a member as liaison during the schools’ budget process next year to reduce the need for questions.

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