Westborough Town Meeting votes for $42.7 million school budget
Westborough – Voters approved the School Committee’s $42.7 million school budget proposal for fiscal year (FY) 2014 at Annual Town Meeting (ATM) March 16.
The approved school budget – which reflects a 3.1 percent increase over the current fiscal year’s budget – was the highest of three different proposals offered during ATM. The Advisory Finance Committee (AFC) recommended a $42.5 million school budget, or a 3 percent increase, and resident Dominic Caprioli recommended a $42 million school budget, or roughly 2 percent increase over the current fiscal year.
The FY 2014 school budget overshoots the budget goal set by selectmen earlier this year that town departments stick to a 2 percent increase. School Committee Chair Ilyse Levine-Kanji said during her presentation of the School Committee’s budget proposal that the schools could not adhere to that goal because of two reasons: state and federal mandates and a decline in state and federal aid.
According to Levine-Kanji, special education is the most costly mandate affecting the school’s budget, responsible for over 26 percent of the School Committee’s requested budget increase.
“The schools are responsible for educating (special education) students from ages 3 to 22, and not just their academic needs but their social, emotional and medical needs,” Levine-Kanji said.
She also pointed out other services that special education students require such as physical, occupational and speech therapy, summer services, and high transportation costs.
Levine-Kanji also noted how the school department has worked to cut costs for special education this year, by combining the seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms at Gibbons Middle School for their most intensive children.
“For those special education students, that classroom doubled. It wasn’t an ideal situation,” she said.
The School Committee also requested just under $1 million towards additional salaries, which, according to Levine-Kanji, wasn’t simply an increase for current staff members.
“After Town Meeting last year, we had to add a new pre-kindergarten classroom,” Levine-Kanji said. “Part of that salary increase is due just to that hiring, and having to add a new van.”
AFC Chair Edward Behn sought to “put things in perspective” by pointing out that over $15,000 is spent to educate each student every year.
“The average taxpayer is spending $5,700 … close to three people for every student,” Behn said. “We’re spending a lot of money on our students.”
Behn also mentioned how the School Department is not alone in its financial struggles of late.
“Working families and retirees have also faced financial pressures, from decreases in earnings and investment returns, combined with escalating healthcare costs,” he said.
Caprioli said that his recommendation for the school budget was based on the selectmen’s request for a two percent budget increase across-the-board.
“The School Department didn’t believe they were subject to this,” Caprioli said. “And yet, we talk about a town that has a unified purpose. There seems to be a conflict in the unity of this purpose.”
Donald Burn of 58 Flanders Road said he supported the AFC’s recommended budget.
“The few times the town has shrunk the school budget over what the School Committee wanted, there was always a discussion of ‘it’s going to increase class size, it’s going to wipe out the athletic program, it’s going to do something.’ It’s never been what people pictured,” he said.
Nathan Walsh, of 3 Mathieu Drive, mentioned that Westborough lacks some of the programs he’s seen at surrounding school districts, such as one-to-one laptop programs and foreign language classes starting in the fourth grade.
“We’re not asking for a lot, but we do want our schools to be able to respond to the needs of society,” he said.
Lester Hensley, of 39 Arch Street, pointed out that even with the School Committee’s budget proposal at 3.1 percent increase, the overall town budget would only increase by 1.71 percent.
“Congratulations, we’ve done it. We’re under two percent. I support the School Committee’s budget,” he said.
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