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School budget is caught between rising costs, falling offsets

With the schools’ fixed costs rising faster than the 2.5% rate that the Finance Committee has set as a limit in recent years to avoid an override, the Harvard schools are leaning more and more heavily on outside sources of money, called offsets, to maintain their quality of education. That was the message School Committee Chair SusanMary Redinger and Superintendent Linda Dwight brought to the Finance Committee as they presented the proposed budget for fiscal 2022 on Feb. 10.

In the three years since fiscal 2019, Redinger explained: “Our total budget before offsets has gone up 9.3%, … our offsets have increased by 17%. And our omnibus budget funding has only gone up by 5.6%. … But because of the fiscal constraints, we’re having to offset it more and more every year. And the omnibus budget hasn’t really kept pace with our need to provide funding for the school district.”

The problem is even more acute for the coming fiscal year. The Finance Committee has told all town departments, including the schools, to present a level-funded budget— that is, a budget asking the town for the same amount of money as last year, eliminating even the 2.5 % increase set by FinCom in earlier years. FinCom has cited the uncertainty of state and local finances in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the requirement.

Moreover, some outside funding the schools have relied on in recent years is likely to be reduced sharply in fiscal 2022. Two federal aid programs—known as Title I and Title IV—that together contributed about $211,000 to Harvard in fiscal 2021 are expected to be reduced to about $95,000 in fiscal 2022.

Redinger and Dwight presented a table showing that rising fixed costs, combined with losses in federal aid, meant that the schools began budgeting for fiscal 2022 with the need to find about $420,000 in cuts just to keep the school’s request for town money the same as last year, as FinCom requested (see table below right).

Dwight later went through the budget in more detail with Finance Committee members and pointed out areas where cuts had already been made. “We have reduced five positions overall in the district,” she said—a full-time English teaching position, half-time positions in math and science, a drama position, a reading specialist, and an elementary school classroom teacher.

“What does that mean? Well, it does mean larger class sizes, in particular at Bromfield. … Not being able to offer as many electives, which are important to many students. And … we’ve also trimmed in the area of professional development, classroom supplies, library materials, curriculum materials.”

Finance Committee member Jennifer Finch raised the issue of current contract negotiations with the Harvard Teachers Association. She asked if a new contract might include a cost-of-living allowance that might add as much as to $100,000 to costs. “Where are $100,000 going to be cut?’ she asked.

“That will be for the School Committee to talk about and decide,” Dwight responded, suggesting its members would have to figure out how to absorb that increase within the school budget. “We weren’t thinking that would come back to Finance Committee for funding,” she said later.

For more than a decade, the largest single outside source of money that helps the schools balance their budget has been the Devens fund—the money MassDevelopment pays Harvard schools to educate children who live in Devens. Recently the School Committee voted to try to keep a minimum of $500,000 in the Devens account, as a reserve for emergencies.

But, as the schools have turned more and more to the Devens fund to cover operating expenses, it is dwindling. School Committee member Sharlene Cronin told FinCom that the school budget subcommittee had tried to make some projections for the next three years, and they realized they would be drawing down the Devens fund to the point where it would no longer be available for the kind of capital projects it has funded until now.

Select Board member Stu Sklar, who was also present at the meeting on the school budget and is a former member of the School Committee, urged the schools not to cut the budget so deeply as to lower the quality of the educational program. “I’d like to see the School Committee do two things,” he said. “I think they have to cut the reserves on the Devens fund much lower than [$500,000], like, let’s say $300,000, or $250,000. And I think we have to have an override. We have to ask for an override, because we’re actually cutting into the meat and the bone of the school district now.”

Title I and Title IV explained

In recent years, the Harvard schools have received between $113,000 and $166,000 in federal grants under a program known as Title I, part of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act to benefit students from low-income families. But this year Harvard is likely to receive only about $67,000 from that program. A 2015 federal program for educational enrichment, known as Title IV, is also likely to be reduced from $$45,000 to $28,000.

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