Charter talk rules Lincoln school budget discussion
Charter talk rules Lincoln school budget discussion
LINCOLN - As is often the case when officials discuss the school budget, talks during a Budget Board meeting last week centered around charter schools - and got stuck there.
The School Committee's chairwoman Kristine Donabedian and vice chairwoman Mary Anne Roll spent the better part of the Wednesday night meeting talking about the increase in charter school tuition payments over the past few years, and the projections that indicate the numbers will continue to rise.
They made their case to the Budget Board that this increase in out-of-district payments coupled with the end of the state funding formula phase-in period could mean "a huge hit" to the budget, and to schools that seek to maintain a variety of high-level programming.
But Budget Board Chairman Carl Brunetti pointed out that in the proposed budget for FY15, 81 percent of the operating costs are for salaries and benefits, leaving 19 percent for everything else.
He asked, with the school population projected to decline as Lincoln residents age, would that not mean a reduction in staff?
Donabedian explained that 50 students leaving the district does not mean the reduction of two classrooms, but rather that a bunch of classrooms just have one or two fewer students. The fixed costs remain the same, she said.
Tense discussions continued during the meeting, which is just one of many held before the Financial Town Meeting in May. By that time, decisions will have to be made to reconcile the $1.2 million difference in what the School Department proposed and the $50.96 million Town Administrator T. Joseph Almond allocated in his budget.
The proposed school budget includes a $500,000 increase in the local appropriation.
Almond sat in the audience at the meeting with the few teachers and residents in attendance and only spoke during public comment. He said students leaving the district is not a new problem, as private schools have attracted students for years, and that the issue is not a funding one.
He said they need to "stop demonizing" parents and students who choose charters.
Out-of-district tuitions are a "universal challenge," Almond said, and part of a larger debate.
Almond later told The Breeze that "the inordinate amount of time and effort being put forth to discredit and challenge the advent of public charter schools is a distraction from the real issues that need to be focused upon. Public charters are a reality, they are a product of state law, and will continue to exist."
Almond said the current ratio of certified teachers to students is 10 to 1, and per pupil expenditure is approximately $16,000. The proposed budget will educate a projection of less than 3,200 students, he said.
He said the town has come to "a financial crossroad" as state aid and gaming revenue decline and a Massachusetts casino is set to open. From 2004 to 2013, he said, the student population has declined from 3,706 to 3,182.
"So while I do believe that it is appropriate to increase school funding by 2.78 percent next year, which is an amount the town can afford without increasing taxes," Almond told The Breeze, "I do believe we have reached a financial crossroad in school funding and that the School Committee must now act expediently to identify and implement the appropriate institutional changes that reflect the student population it serves, the new state funding formula for education and the fiscal restraints we have all had to cope with."
He continued, "In light of the expiration of additional state aid, these fixed costs associated with wages and benefits will become unsustainable and impede the ability to maintain desired staffing levels at the schools."
Brunetti pointed out at the meeting that eliminating one position at the high school could mean saving $100,000. Roll acknowledged that the day may come when the district has to cut 15 teachers, but that it should be noted that it could have an impact on Lincoln's "diverse" programs, including those for special education.
"If you shrink your program, if your program becomes less rich, we will lose more students," she said. "What has attracted them here in the past will keep them here in the future."
Donabedian shared projections provided by Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy that in a "worst case scenario" where all Lincoln seats are filled, there could be a 40 percent increase between fiscal years 2015 and 2016.
School Committee member John Carroll, who had stayed relatively quiet when charter conversations were held in the past, chimed in to defend school choice.
"What always concerns me is using words like 'worst case scenario,'" he said. "We're talking about providing excellent education."
He said while Lincoln also provides "excellent educational opportunities," the challenge should be in focusing on how the district can compete with longer school days, a longer school year and a rigorous program.
Carroll also took issue with Budget Board Vice Chairman Hagop Jawharjian's assertion that Blackstone Valley Prep releases "skewed" scores that highlight only certain grades' accomplishments.
Carroll said scores are based on the NECAP tests taken by every school.
"It's not skewed," he said. "The score is the score."
And it is the scores that work as marketing for the charter school option, Carroll said.
At the School Committee meeting Monday night, Roll announced that the district would be looking to hire a media consultant.