By Dustin Luca
---- — To move the school district forward, Andover’s school department argues that it needs up to $2.2 million more than what’s being allocated to it by the town manager for next year.
That was the message Superintendent Marinel McGrath put before the Finance Committee and Board of Selectmen last Wednesday, March 6.
To start the budget process this year, Town Manager Buzz Stapczynski allocated a $68 million budget for the schools, up 3.3 percent over last year’s $65.9 million budget. To date, school officials have said that increase doesn’t cover compliance, contract and statutory requirements faced by the school district, even with expense cuts already factored in.
In her budget presentation, McGrath said that “one’s budget reflects what one’s values are, and budgeting becomes a lot easier when we can define our values and align our spending with those values.”
Two budget proposals are currently going forward: one to provide “level services” that satisfy the district’s compliance requirements and statutory needs, and the other to support the first steps of McGrath’s Strategic Plan initiatives going into next year.
Both also represent a number of new hires. The “level services” budget proposes added a combined 21.97 full-time equivalent positions, spread out over 33 either new or increased positions. The increases are largely driven by new government mandates and shifting enrollment needs, according to McGrath. That budget reflects a $1.35 million increase beyond the town’s allocation, up to $69.4 million.
The Strategic Plan budget adds another 13.05 FTE requests, scattered throughout 18 different positions. Included are 2.5 FTE hires for digital learning specialists in four schools, 2.75 FTE hires for music programming at the middle schools, 4.5 FTE hires at the high school to combat classroom sizes and program advisers for fine arts, social studies and English. That budget reflects a $2.2 million increase over Stapczynski’s allocation, up to $70.3 million.
A number of Strategic Plan initiatives are at risk without the larger budget, McGrath said. Among them: a fifth day of world language instruction for middle school students would go by the wayside; band and orchestra teachers at the elementary school level wouldn’t be hired; math coaches and additional social workers wouldn’t be at the elementary schools; and teachers throughout the district would have “to address higher-than-average desirable class sizes.”
Others at the meeting were concerned about the size of the budget, however — particularly how fast it has grown over the years.
“Everything comes with a cost,” Finance Committee Chairman Jon Stumpf said. “Compliance and a lot of the state mandates are very big challenges.”
But at the same time, officials should also compare the rate of expansion to the state average and where Andover falls above or below that, according to Stumpf.
“In the last 10 years, the town of Andover’s Special Education expenditures have increased 350 percent higher than the state average has,” he said. “If the state average went up 2.4 percent and our average went up 8.1 percent, a reasonable person might have to say, ‘Why?’ Because the compliance issues are the same [across the state].”
The reason for the increase is simple to explain, according to School Committee member Annie Gilbert.
“People choose to move to Andover. They might choose to move to Andover because the high school has phenomenal sports teams,” she said. “They might choose to move to Andover, and I’m certain they do, because we have outstanding Special Ed programming.”
Canterbury Street resident John Zipeto also opposed the comparison to the state average, saying that the town has to “give it thought.”
“Andover is a great town. I’ve lived here for 35 years. I don’t want to move,” he said. “My kids are out of the school system, but more are coming through the ranks. So there’s a responsibility we all have.”
“Does it come with a cost, Jon?” Zipeto said. “Yes, it does.”
The department will work to further refine and “scrub” the budget request in the weeks ahead, officials have said. The next step in the process is a public hearing at the School Committee’s conference room on March 21 at 7 p.m.
The conference room is located on the second floor of the school administrative offices, above the Center at Punchard — formerly called the Andover Senior Center — on Whittier Court.