With Lincoln’s annual budget process about to start, I thought a high level overview of last year’s budget along with some key takeaways might be insightful. All statistics are based on publicly available data, predominately from the F21-22 Financial Town Meeting budget book which shows:
1. 72 percent of town operating expenditures are for schools while 28 percent are municipal expenses.
2. For the three years ending F21-22, school operating expenses increased $4.8M while municipal was reduced $1.2M.
3. The largest school expense by far is for personnel (salaries and benefits) costing $47.1M. This is 79 percent of all school operating expenses of $59.6M.
4. The average salary for a full-time teacher is $90,909. For reference, salaries for some year-round municipal positions are: Town administrator $94,003, chief of police $86,093, and an average patrolman $66,097.
No doubt, Lincoln teachers are well paid, being in the top tier of teacher compensation in the state. If nothing changes, these generous school salaries and benefits will likely grow beyond today’s 79 percent of total budget. This will further squeeze out budget funds needed for other priorities, notably, improving Lincoln’s mediocre academic performance (above average in R.I. but R.I. performs at the bottom of New England states) and upgrading maintenance programs to extend the useful life of facility assets.
Compounding this funding squeeze is the very real risk of future reductions in R.I. state aid. This state aid funds a sizable portion of the annual school budget and over the past three years has increased $3.8M (+31 percent) to $16.1M. This level of increase is well above history and cannot reasonably be expected to continue. When reductions do happen, either cuts to school spending or additional taxes will be required.
What is needed to better cope with these pending budget issues is a long-term cost strategy that addresses all spending but particularly the drivers of personnel costs which represent 4/5 of all school expenses. At a minimum, this cost strategy should target: growing staff levels, above market teacher salaries, and generous fringe benefits. For starters, here are some strategy suggestions:
1. Any staff additions should require offsets elsewhere in the current 435 person organization.
2. Pay rates for the top steps should be capped until the market catches up with Lincoln’s pay scale.
3. Employee contributions for fringe benefits should be increased or programs modified for a more equitable cost sharing between employer-employee.
Without such a strategy, teachers will continue to be enriched while students and taxpayers are underserved.
It is time for the school superintendent and School Committee to step up and begin development and implementation of a long-term cost strategy that addresses all school spending and to propose a F22-23 budget that better controls budget consuming personnel costs.