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Finance Committee Chairman offers a pessimistic view on Superintendent’s proposed School Department budget
Superintendent of Schools Dr. David DeRuosi, Jr. would need a Proposition 2 ½ override to get the funds he’s seeking to run Saugus Public Schools, according to Finance Committee Chairman Kenneth DePatto. “That’s a level of growth that I don’t see as sustainable,” DePatto told DeRuosi at Wednesday night’s Finance Committee meeting during a preliminary review of the School Department’s proposed operating budget for the 2018 fiscal year that begins July 1. “I don’t see how we can come up with these numbers,” DePatto said.
DeRuosi’s $29.6 million spending plan is about $1.2 million more than what Town Manager Scott C. Crabtree provided in the preliminary town operating budget approved by selectmen last month. But DePatto noted the projected increase could surpass $2 million with additional costs.
“There’s only so much money that comes into this town,” DePatto said. “The only way to do it,” he added, would be to increase revenue and “go for an override.”
Accompanied by all five School Committee members and his key administrative staff – including the School Department’s executive director of Finance and Administration, Pola Andrews – DeRuosi spent close to two hours briefing the Finance Committee members and answering their questions.
The Finance Committee is in the early stages of its review of town department budget requests, which began last week. Sometime next month, the committee will make a recommendation to the Annual Town Meeting, which is set to convene on May 1.
School officials can make an argument to Town Meeting members for more funding. But a Finance Committee recommendation usually carries considerable weight during the proceedings of the 50-member body that will vote on what the town spends during the next fiscal year.
Crabtree has recommended a $300,000 increase in the School Department’s current operating budget. A year ago, the School Department requested a $1 million increase in its budget. Crabtree’s proposed spending plan recommended $400,000 more. The School Department wound up getting an additional $100,000 to get half of what it requested for its operating budget.
The School Committee’s Finance Subcommittee has initiated a strategy in hopes of getting additional funds. The subcommittee asked DeRuosi to develop three different budget scenarios, showing what the impact would be if the School Department received the $300,000 increase recommended by Crabtree, a $400,000 increase and a $500,000 increase.
“Really nice presentation”
While DeRuosi didn’t receive a favorable review of the whopping increase he’s seeking in the School Department’s operating budget, he did receive praise from several Finance Committee members on his detailed presentation. “Really nice presentation … You did a great job,” DePatto said.
The superintendent included a printed version of a PowerPoint presentation, similar to what he provided the School Committee earlier this year. Using statistical charts, DeRuosi pinpointed the major “cost centers” of the School Department budget and focused on trends to explain why the School Department budget has been increasing despite the declining enrollment from October 2012 through last October – from 2,850 students down to 2,603 students. “I’ve been gone five years, so I decided to go back five years,” DeRuosi said.
DeRuosi noted that about $6 million of the budget is related to special needs students. “We could be spending up to $5,000 a month for one child,” he said.
Transportation costs for special needs students enrolled in out-of-district programs can be particularly expensive. Costs can balloon if special needs students are switched from a day program to a residential program.
DeRuosi referred to a $514,000 increase in out-of-district costs related to Special Education. “We had two kids moving in during Christmas break that drove our costs up,” the superintendent said.
One of those cases involved a 17-year-old student now in a residential facility who accounted for close to half of that amount ($253,788). The school district might be expected to pay for that student’s education until he is 22.
An increase in English language learners has created “a whole set of needs for the school district,” DeRuosi said.
“You’re looking at 23 different languages spoken in the household … For a town like Saugus, that’s a big transition,” the superintendent said.
The increasing needs of low income families has also taken its toll. “Poverty right now is decimating multiple districts – not just Saugus. … About 40 percent of kids coming to the district require more needs,” DeRuosi said.
Charter schools hurt district
The exodus of students from Saugus Public Schools to charter schools “alarmed me the most,” DeRuosi said. Charter school enrollment increased from 96 students in October of 2012 to 165 students last October. “That’s a red flag for me,” the superintendent said.
“We want to keep these kids in the district,” he said, noting that charter schools have drawn several million dollars away from the school district while they “do not compete with us on a level playing field.”
Charter schools can be selective in the students they accept, while Saugus Public Schools provides education for students at all learning levels – many who would be rejected by charter schools.
“They are our students,” DePatto interjected.
“They are our taxpayers’ children,” he said, adding he would support anyone trying to get an education.
DeRuosi acknowledged that town residents have a choice of where they want to send their children to school. “My job is to build a better product,” he said.
Taking steps to be efficient
DeRuosi said the School Department has become more efficient at eliminating unnecessary costs in several areas since he took charge last July 1. He called the decision by the School Committee to outsource its food services program to a private company, effective next year, “a huge efficiency” that will eliminate the annual loss of about $110,000-a-year.
Previously, student debt averaged $11,000 to $12,000. Currently, it averages $3,000. The School Department is now focusing on how to improve student participation in the food service program, according to DeRuosi.
He said he also has taken steps to eliminate deficits in the Athletic Department budget. But while the School Department makes strides to become more efficient, its efforts are hampered by circumstances beyond the district’s control.
“The state and federal government need to step up and fund public education … It can’t keep falling on the backs of cities and towns,” DeRuosi said.
Without the support, public education is on the brink of collapse, according to DeRuosi. With changing demographics, Saugus has become “a mini-urban” community that “needs some help,” he said.
Getting part-timers off health insurance
Finance Committee Member Steve DiVirgilio broached the issue of reducing the number of part-time School Department employees who qualify for the town’s health insurance. People working 20 hours a week can get health insurance that costs the town $20,000-a-year, DiVirgilio said. By reducing the part-time hours to under 20 hours a week for 50 employees, the town can save a million dollars, DiVirgilio estimated. “It’s not politically popular,” he added.
But DeRuosi insisted that wouldn’t be an issue for him, as it has been his past practice to not allow part-time help to work more than 19.5 hours a week. “If we hire at 19.5 hours, there are no benefits attached … I have always posted at 19.5 [hours],” DeRuosi said.
DiVirgilio wanted to know how many part-time employees work for Saugus Public Schools. DeRuosi wasn’t able to provide that number, but said his staff would provide that and other information requested by the Finance Committee.