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Ashland School District facing severe budget cuts

August 10, 2011
ASHLAND — The Ashland School Board received bad news last week about the 2011-12 school district budget, as changes in the state budget and rising costs will force budget cuts, the use of most of the emergency special education funds, and a property tax increase. They also learned of the school's summer activities and preparations for the new school year.

Superintendent Phil McCormack outlined the unanticipated increased costs and decreased revenues that have developed since the 2011-12 school district budget was approved by the voters in March. The state legislature was able to balance the state budget, but that came at the expense of school district budgets. The state will no longer make any contribution to the retirement fund for school district employees. Part of what the state formerly paid will now be charged to the employees, but the rest will fall on the school districts. The retirement costs for the Ashland district will increase by about $51,000 above what was budgeted. On the other side of the balance sheet, the state will cut its annual grant to Ashland for "adequate education" by $144,000.

Other costs are also rising. Fuel oil will cost 63 cents more per gallon than during the last fiscal year, creating a budget shortfall of about $12,000. Kindergarten enrollment is much higher than expected when the budgets were developed during the winter. Principal Bill Tirone announced that the kindergarten enrollment now stands at 26 students, including a student enrolled on the day of the meeting. This increased enrollment will require two kindergarten sessions, one each in the morning and the afternoon, instead of the single morning session of the recent past. That session adds another $11,000 to the budget shortfall. The overall school enrollment has also increased to a current estimate of 175 students. Some of the new students bring with them special education needs that were not included in the budget appropriation. Approximately $55,000 will be needed to make up the difference in special education.

The only resource available to make up for some of the budget shortfall is the special education expendable trust fund, which was built up years ago to be used for unanticipated special education costs. The school administrators will ask the school board to use the fund for the extra special education costs. But, as the fund only contains about $66,000, there will not be much left for special education emergencies in the future.

The other expenditure shortfalls — the extra retirement, fuel oil and kindergarten costs — total around $74,000. So, the administrators, McCormack, Assistant Superintendent Trish Temperino and Tirone, examined the adopted budget and identified about $83,000 in potential cuts.

Tirone described the process as "painful," and McCormack called many of the proposed cuts "things we did not want to do." These cuts include dropping $19,000 for new textbooks for the revised language arts curriculum, $10,000 for replacement computers, and $12,000 for a part-time aide. Other cuts may be made in such areas as co-curricular activities, equipment and supplies.

There was little that could be done about the lost state revenue. The state Department of Revenue Administration will use the new adequate education grant to calculate the tax rate in the fall.

The only good budget news that McCormack had for the school board was that the "surplus," the unused funds from the end of the 2010-11 fiscal year, will be higher than expected, probably around $108,000, rather than the $75,000 that was predicted when the budget was adopted. The administrators proposed that the entire surplus be used to offset the property tax rate, so another $33,000 in surplus will partly offset the $144,000 in lost revenue. The predicted tax rate increase for the school budget at the time of the vote was 2.35 percent. McCormack said that if nothing was done, the tax increase would be about 13 percent. With the steps proposed by the administration, the tax rate increase is estimated to be around eight percent.

The school board members were not pleased with the situation, but had to accept the cuts. Board member Kevin Stack noted that the 2011-12 budget was an "austere" budget to begin with; that every line had been examined by the school board. He regretted the cuts to the capital improvements, such as the computers.

But, as member Mardean Badger said, "we have no choice" except to cut the budget. When asked about the possibility of relief, McCormack could only respond that the lawsuits now underway about the retirement system changes might eventually modify the district's retirement costs. But he did not know if those suits would be successful, as one superior court judge had already upheld the state legislature's position in one lawsuit.

Tirone reported that the summertime work on the school buildings and grounds was going well. Work on the Ober School was to be completed that week. The custodians would then turn their attention to the school gym. He praised Charle Dorais and the custodial crew for their good work, as did Chairman Miriam Brown and McCormack.

A letter outlining the student dress code is being sent to parents, so that they can buy appropriate clothing when they shop for the coming school year.

Tirone explained that three days of workshops are planned for the teachers starting on Aug. 23, including the beginning of restraint training, a workshop on bullying, and a review of the handbook. On the third day, the teachers will also work in their classrooms and hold committee meetings.

Preparation for student testing is also on the agenda for the opening weeks of school, as all students will be tested during the week of Oct. 3 though 8, with NEWA tests for kindergarten through second grade and NECAP tests for grades three through eight.

The school board began its meeting with a long non-public session on student issues.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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