Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

February 21, 2013

Schools: Budget woes need immediate discussion

By Dustin Luca
Staff Writer

---- — With less than two weeks before the School Committee presents its budget to other town officials, the committee is still calling for those officials to take a closer look at Andover’s budget development process. Meanwhile, school budget figures remain — publicly anyway — a mystery.

Every year in the months leading up to Town Meeting, officials and departments craft their budgets for the coming fiscal year, which starts in July. To begin the process this year, Stapczynski allocated enough money to the school department to give it a 3.32 percent increase over last year. That’s a $68 million budget, with an increase of $2.2 million.

In the days leading up to his budget presentation on Feb. 1, however, the schools didn’t provide budget numbers as expected. They instead provided a single page explaining that the $68 million allocation wasn’t enough to cover their mandatory expenses. While listing several reasons for why, they added that the budget process needed to be discussed. Stapczynski has since said he believes their actions technically put them in violation of the town charter.

At a budget development workshop last Friday, Feb. 15, School Committee Chairwoman Paula Colby-Clements said the schools’ decision to not provide budget details to Town Manager Buzz Stapczynski prior to his presentation last month was not aimed at putting school money needs against the rest of the town, or even to put boards in opposition of each other.

The heart of the issue is how the town develops its budgets. Normally there are preliminary discussions on budget revenue assumptions, but this year things went differently, Colby-Clements said.

“That didn’t happen this year, and I told the chairs (of other boards involved) a few times, the School Committee really wants to be involved in that,” she said.

Work continues behind the scenes to “scrub” the school department’s budget for next year so it fits under a certain dollar amount. As that goes on, committee member Annie Gilbert said knowing how large the department’s budget deficit is — how much more they are currently set to spend, minus what the town will give them — would distract the public and officials from what she feels should really be getting attention.

“We know so well that as soon as we put out that information, there’s certain element of fixation — certainly in the parent community but also the other boards — about what is or isn’t included (in the deficit),” she said. “That becomes its own semi-circus that distracts from talking about issues like this.”

Part of the department’s issue is how fast its costs increase from year to year in order to provide “level services” — the same quality of work from one year to the next. Town and school departments measure level services differently, the committee believes, because student enrollment numbers change just as quickly as student needs change.

To cover statutory obligations governing the quality of education and addressing individual students’ needs, the department needs roughly a 4 to 5 percent increase in what it spends every year, according to Gilbert.

“If you look around the Commonwealth, it’s the case to carry forward a school each year with that definition of level services,” she said. “That’s not doing new initiatives and innovations, and Chinese language programs or anything. That’s to keep the ship moving.”

Joanne Marden, Finance Committee member, said the current process won’t allow for that size of an increase.

“We will not have 4 to 5 percent per year, given our current revenue base. If you say, ‘well, we have to re-jiggle things,’ that’s not sustainable,” she said. “Over time, you can’t keep shifting money. Eventually, whatever you’re shifting from totally runs out.”

This year’s budget theme, coined by Stapczynski, is “Andover, a Community Shaping Its Future.” To shape its future, Colby-Clements said the town’s budget struggles need to be talked about now.

The discussions “won’t solve this year, but those will impact future years for sure. It does resonate with his whole... where he says we’re a community trying to figure out where we’re going. We have to start figuring it out now,” she said. “If all we do every budget season, and this is the way I see it, is we back into a number and solve the immediate problem, then we make decisions on the (capital improvement plan) that we find out three years later are bad decisions.”

The department is slated to present its budget to the selectmen and Finance Committee at a budget meeting on Wednesday, March 6. Officials have said that is when their budget details will be made public. The annual budget will come before Annual Town Meeting voters in May.