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A $1.1 million gap

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The town manager’s proposed FY 2023 budget only provides $400,000 of the $1.5 million increase sought by school superintendent

  When she unveiled her budget request for the 2023 fiscal year back in January, Saugus Public Schools Superintendent Erin McMahon proposed a $31.3 million spending plan – about a $1.5 million increase over the School Department’s current budget. McMahon justified the 4.87 percent hike as a way to help narrow the academic achievement gap in Saugus and support her five-year plan to boost Saugus Public Schools from the bottom 10 percent of education districts into the top 10. But when Town Manager Scott C. Crabtree released his preliminary operating budget estimates for the fiscal year that begins July 1, there was a $1.1 million gap between what McMahon was requesting and his estimated budget recommendation of $30,275,250 for the School Department.

  Crabtree noted in a Feb. 15 memo to selectmen accompanying his recommended budget that he was recommending “an increase of $400,000 over the Fiscal Year 2022 budget voted by Town Meeting.” “This increase does not include the indirect costs paid by the Town on behalf of the School Department and included as part of the Total Net School Spending (NSS) calculation required by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).”

  School Committee members offered little reaction when approached by The Saugus Advocate. They voted unanimously in support of McMahon’s proposed budget back in January.

  “On behalf of the Saugus School Committee and the Superintendent, we look forward to presenting to the Finance Committee and detailing the important improvements we have made to the district and our commitment to progress and change,” School Committee Member Ryan Fisher wrote in a text to the newspaper on Wednesday.

  Fisher declined to elaborate when asked whether he was surprised by the town manager’s budget recommendation and if he is optimistic about receiving Town Meeting support for the superintendent’s full request. “I’m going to stick with that statement for now since it’s so early,” he answered, referring to the current schedule of the town’s budget process.

  The Finance Committee begins its review of the town manager’s proposed budget Wednesday night (March 9), but it could be several weeks before the School Superintendent and the School Committee are scheduled to brief the FinCom about their Fiscal Year 2023 budget requests and answer questions

  The Saugus Advocate had reached out to each of the five School Committee members and the school superintendent for comment. But Fisher was the only one responding back, and he stressed, “that’s from all of us including Erin,” referring to the superintendent.

  Meanwhile, at the town manager’s budget presentation on Monday (Feb. 28), Crabtree and the selectmen expressed concerns that the School Department budget doesn’t actually reflect the true amount of town funds that are spent on the School Department. “Sixty-percent of the budget is school-related,” Crabtree told selectmen.

  More than $20 million in teacher salaries and benefits and costs related to running the school buildings are currently within the town budget, according to the town manager.

  And the cost of the town’s public education could increase substantially next year when a current grant funding free all-day kindergarten expires, Crabtree said. “In the next year, somebody has to pay for that. Where is the money coming from?” Crabtree asked.

  Selectman Jeffrey Cicolini said he is concerned about shortcomings in the overall cooperation between Town Hall and the School Department. “There’s a discussion we need to have now,” Cicolini said. Instead of having an “us vs. them” situation, he stressed that there needs to be “more collaboration” between the Town Hall side of government and the School Department.

  Cicolini questioned why the town budget continues to include significant school-related costs. “Why can’t we have them responsible?” Cicolini asked.

  It might create “a more feasible budget,” he said.

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