Williamstown School Committee Pores Over BudgetBy Stephen Dravis
11:34AM / Thursday, March 14, 2013
The School Committee in reviewing the fiscal 2014 budget were concerned about a drop in the district's reserves. Right, technology director Tom Welch gave an update on the wireless system and told the board he is pleased with the faculty's enthusiasm for adapting new technology.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Members of the Williamstown Elementary School Committee on Wednesday expressed concerns about plans to close a fiscal 2014 budget gap with reserve funds.
The committee held a public hearing on the budget, which it plans in April to vote to recommend to May's Town Meeting.
Committee member Dan Caplinger queried district Business Manager David Donoghue about the use of reserve funds in light of the fact that balances in those accounts will be significantly lower at the end of FY14 than they were just two years ago if the budget goes forward as proposed.
Donoghue and Superintendent Rose Ellis told the panel that although drawing down the reserves is a concern, those reserves would still be comparable to reserves held by other school districts, and in fact WES had been carrying larger than normal reserves the last few years.
Caplinger questioned the impact of relying on reserves for future budgets.
"We had $850,000 at the end of FY12, and in this budget, it's down to $400,000," Caplinger noted. "I'm concerned by that trend. Not only are reserves falling, they're falling at an accelerated rate.
"What's the long-term plan so we don't have a major [budgetary] contraction somewhere down the line?"
According to figures Donoghue included in his report, the district's non-appropriated account balances at the end of FY12 were $456,000 in school choice, $339,000 in tuition and $54,000 in "Circuit Breaker," a state special education reimbursement program. That totals $840,000.
At the end of the current fiscal year, those accounts are projected to total $698,000.
The projection for the close of FY14, based on the proposed budget, would be be $399,000.
The reason for the budget gap is that while the elementary school's expenditures are expected to rise by about $314,000 from FY13 to FY14, the town's contribution from tax revenue is expected to rise by $128,000.
Donoghue responded to Caplinger's concern by noting that budgets are predictions of costs, and the district can and often does end up needing less money than it forecasts. His presentation included an update on FY13 that shows the district's total expenditures coming in at $6.014 million, about $70,000 under the $6.085 million it budgeted.
"We still have to close close the FY13 books," Donoghue said. "It's still possible we'll achieve savings.
"Secondly, you have to keep looking at each year's budget with an eye to where balances are and plan accordingly. The reserves being at $400,000 is still adequate."
Ellis said the rule of thumb for school districts is that reserves should be about 5 percent of operating expenses. Five percent of WES' proposed $6.4 million budget would be about $320,000, well under the $400,000 forecast for the reserve fund at the end of FY14.
"I agree," Caplinger said. "But I don't see the budget gap disappearing down the line. Planning for (future gaps) may be painful, but it wouldn't be as Draconian as what may be required down the line."
Ellis said the administration is also concerned about the long-term impact of relying on reserve funds, but the current budget is as lean as it can be.
"We've really cut this budget to the bone," she said, noting that the first priority in budgeting is the children who attend the school.
"There's a hierarchy of what's important to us," Ellis said. "If you think of it like concentric circles, children are at the center, and then teachers, and then there's that third ring, and we've chipped away at that."
Committee member Chris Jones said the bare-bones nature of the budget is a concern in and of itself.
"I think the problem is there's not a lot of fat to cut," Jones said. "That's what makes it really uncomfortable seeing the balances drop. I'm not sure there's anything that you can do about that, but I'm glad everyone is aware of the problem."
After the public hearing on the budget, the committee held its regular monthly meeting, where it approved the administration's recommendation for a 3 percent increase in tuition rates for the school's Side-by-Side preschool program.
The cost of a year of full-day preschool will be $6,965 next year, compared to $6,762 for this school year. The half-day tuition will go from $3,384 to $3,485. That represents the same percentage increase the school has implemented the last two years.
Caplinger and committee member John Skavlem asked Ellis to report back at the panel's April meeting about whether that 3 percent tuition increase would be enough to cover anticipated rises in the cost of the preschool program.
In other business on Wednesday, the committee heard a report from the school's technology director, who said that by the end of the month, he anticipates having the entire school on one wireless network. Currently, wireless service is available, but it is spotty, and not continuous; a teacher using a wireless device in one room loses connection and must log on to a different server when he or she moves to a different part of the building.
Tom Welch also told the panel that he is pleased with the faculty's enthusiasm for adapting new technology in the classroom as well as for the teachers' own planning purposes. And he told them about learning software being implemented in the classrooms, including a keyboarding program that has helped some fifth-graders improve their typing skills from eight words per minute to 20 or 30 wpm.
Welch also put in a plug for the school's Lego Robotics Club, which will be traveling to Lenox High School on March 23 for a countywide competition.
In general, Welch credited the culture at the school with making his job easier.
"When I go to conferences, I feel lucky to work at Williamstown because the commitment to technology is strong," Welch said.