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Clarifying the price of Saugus Public Schools

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Finance Committee Vice Chair says public ought to know that the School Department actually gets close to $29 million more than what its operating budget shows


By Mark E. Vogler


At the outset of Wednesday night’s meeting, Finance Committee Vice Chair George DeDomenico made a point of diffusing any argument that Saugus Public Schools are being underfunded this year.

Financial documents supporting the town manager’s proposed budget for the 2025 Fiscal Year show municipal general fund operating budgets total $78.3 million and the tentative school fund operating budget for next year is $33.1 million. What many town residents may not realize is that nearly $29 million of the $78.3 million that is portrayed as part of the town operating budgets is actually listed as School Department Schedule-19 charges hidden in the town side of the budget.

“When you actually combine those numbers together, the School Department gets 56 percent of the total pie,” DeDomenico said.

DeDomenico, a longtime member of the Finance Committee, sought to make “the clarification” before the Finance Committee began its review of the School Department operating budget. “The same topic comes up every year – the way we portray our budgets in the budget books … the town side/school side,” DeDomenico said.

“Oftentimes, we get into heated discussions about the numbers,” he said.

In many of the previous Finance Committee budget reviews of the School Department over the past decade, past School Committee members have argued that the School Department was consistently being shortchanged in the town manager’s budget. Meanwhile, Finance Committee members would try to point out that the School Department was receiving millions of dollars more that wasn’t part of its official operating budget. And the ongoing argument would lead to acrimonious discussions between the Finance Committee and the School officials.

“The town in its entirety supports the school system,” DeDomenico said in an interview after the meeting.

“It’s nice to be able to inform the public about the full budget to support the schools. We’re trying to seek clarity and transparency on just where the numbers fall,” he said.


A $1.2 million difference between town and school

Town Manager Scott C. Crabtree has recommended $33.1 million for the School Department for the 2025 Fiscal Year that begins July 1 – an increase of $1.5 million over the Fiscal Year 2024 budget approved last spring by the Annual Town Meeting. That’s triple the increase he recommended for school spending last year. But Crabtree’s proposed school spending plan is still $1.2 million less than the proposed Saugus Public Schools budget recommended by Superintendent Michael Hashem and approved by the School Committee.

At this year’s Finance Committee budget review of school spending, there weren’t any arguments between school officials and town officials like in previous years.

“I do understand there are other funds that count for school employees,” Hashem told DeDomenico.

Wednesday night’s meeting was the second in a series of budget reviews that the committee will conduct before making recommendations to the Annual Town Meeting, which convenes May 6. The Finance Committee is scheduled to review the proposed 2025 fiscal year budget for the Department of Public Works when it meets this Wednesday (April 3) at 7 p.m. in the first floor conference room at Saugus Town Hall.

DeDomenico is expected to continue chairing the meetings through the end of April, leading up to the Annual Town Meeting. He will fill in for Chair Kenneth DePatto, who is recuperating from surgery and cancer treatments. DePatto briefed Finance Committee members about his condition at last week’s budget review session.


A closer look at Schedule-19 charges

The so-called Schedule-19 charges or chargebacks account for $28,965,554 in the town’s proposed operating budget for the 2025 fiscal year that begins July 1. Insurance for active employees accounts for nearly $6.5 million, according to a document titled “School Department Schedule-19 Charges,” which DeDomenico provided to The Saugus Advocate. That is the largest single item on the list. Other school-related expenses within the town operating budgets include:

  • Tuition to Commonwealth Charter Schools, $4.3 million
  • Long-term debt service for school construction, $3.9 million
  • Insurance for retired school employees, $3.5 million
  • Long-term debt retired for school construction, $3.1 million
  • Tuition to Massachusetts schools, $2.9 million
  • Employee retirement contributions, $1.7 million
  • Other non-employee insurance, $1 million
  • Maintenance of school buildings, $471,039
  • Business and finance, $395,486
  • School Choice tuition, $385,592
  • Human Resources and benefits, $256,907
  • Employee separation costs, $225,000
  • Maintenance of school grounds, $168,912
  • Legal services for School Committee, $50,000
  • District-wide information management and technology, $35,526
  • Long-term debt service/education and other, $34,346
  • Pupil transportation, $26,250
  • Health services, $4,591


A need to serve English Language Learners

One of the top items in Hashem’s budget request is $190,617 to fund the hiring of three full time ELL Teachers. “We don’t have anywhere near the number of staff we need to serve the English Language Learners,” Hashem told the Finance Committee.

“We had a huge influx of English Language Learners over the last two years. Five is way under the ratio we’re supposed to have,” he said.

Hashem said this request and another to hire an adjustment counselor at both the Belmonte STEAM Academy and the Veterans Early Learning Center at $67,000 apiece are among the items that are in jeopardy of being cut out of his proposed budget. “It’s happening in all walks of life…you see the students who come back from the shutdown [COVID-19] – they have a lot of social and emotional needs that we need to meet,” Hashem said.

On a positive note, Hashem said the school district actually realized some benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We used the pandemic and leveraged it to get high-quality educational material so we’re aligned with the state standards,” Hashem said.

“These curriculum materials are now what districts are being forced to do. They’re now being told they have to start using these high curriculum instructional materials,” he said.

But Saugus Public Schools has already spent two years trying to integrate the new curriculum into the school system, so it is in better shape than the school districts that are being ordered to obtain the new curriculum. Saugus obtained a new curriculum for math, English Language, history and science that matches up to state standards, according to Hashem, who described the new curriculum as “very intensive.”

Finance Committee Member Steven DiVirgilio recalled that as a student of the 90s, he received “a very good education.”

“It was efficient and effective,” he said.

DiVirgilio asked Hashem whether he thought the new curriculum “you’re describing is efficient and effective as opposed to before?”

Hashem said he believes the curriculum will be “efficient” and “effective,” once implemented.

But DiVirgilio noted that the public perception remains negative. “What the community thinks is that the educational product coming out is not as good as it used to be,” he said.

“We’re spending a lot more money and it sounds like it’s more about administration,” he said.

Finance Committee Member Theresa Katsos asked Hashem whether he feels the capacity of the current school buildings is adequate. “Are we running out of room in the schools with all these influxes of people coming in?” Katsos asked Hashem.

“Not yet, but it’s tough to know. It’s really difficult to know” Hashem answered.

Katsos wanted to know whether any one school was more crowded than another. “It’s the Vets school that’s more crowded than the others,” Hashem said.

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