DARTMOUTH — The Dartmouth School Committee got its first look at the administration’s proposed $43 million operating budget for Fiscal Year 2019, beginning July 1, 2018, a level-services funding package.
For the most part, the spending plan roughly follows the current budget, with some minor adjustments in staffing, and small reductions in energy costs and out-of-district placement tuition costs, said School Business Administrator James Kiely.
As usual, the biggest component of the annual operating budget is instructional costs, pegged at $32.3 million, up about 3.1 percent over current spending. Administrative costs, at $1.1 million, are also up about 3.0 percent, Kiely reported. Other school services, including bus transportation, stand at $4.68 million; maintenance expenses, at $3.5 million; and out-of-district placement tuitions, at $1.4 million, 3.1 percent lower than this year.
Most of the proposed increases in instructional and administrative costs represent salary increases, Kiely said. “These numbers are comparable to what we have for fiscal year 2018” in most cases, he said, and state aid for the coming fiscal year is expected to be “essentially level.”
Superintendent Bonny Gifford said that as in the past, principals’ budget requests were reviewed and debated as a district budget was being drafted. When budget requests didn’t match “available resources,” the superintendent said, tough decisions had to be made.
“Of course, we’re always looking to get better, not just maintain the status quo,” Gifford said, adding that the draft budget seemed to be the best allocation of what funds are available for education.
Some adjustments to the current year’s budget resulted in “a huge increase in our STEM programs” at all levels, and that investment is paying big dividends throughout the district, the superintendent said. Gifford advocated for continuing a focus on science and technology programming at all grade levels.
School Committee Chair Dr. Shannon Jenkins pointed out that a $779,000 list of unfunded budget requests from principals and department heads made it possible to almost meet budget planning goals. Several mathematics and science positions were among the unfunded requests.
“I’m a broken record on ... we don’t have enough money,” a frustrated Jenkins said, after looking over the unfunded teaching positions, resources and programs on the long list. “There are a lot of things on that list that would be nice to have. ... I wish we could do more, and give everybody what they want, but we can’t."
The proposed $43 million draft budget is still several hundred thousand dollars over the “recommended” budget figure the school district received from Town Hall, board member John Nunes said. Kiely put the theoretical “deficit” compared to the town’s recommended request at about $240,000.
Nunes said he thinks that relatively small discrepancy between the suggested budget total and the district’s draft plan can be worked out with the Finance Committee and the town’s financial department.
Kiely said the budget timeline officially starts with a March 12 public hearing on the proposed budget, and continues with small adjustments based on public input, and final staffing decisions. The school committee has to vote on a recommended final budget to submit to town officials by the end of March.
The school board will meet with the Finance Committee for a review session in April, then the school board will finalize the fiscal 2019 budget request to be presented at the annual town meeting for funding.
Among the few proposed increases in staffing are three positions funded in a proposed $98,000 occupational therapy program at the elementary level. A special education teacher and two teacher assistants are being budgeted for the program. The students brought back from outside placements for needed services would eliminate $164,000 in outside tuition costs, Kiely said.
Dartmouth Education Association president and high school science teacher Renee Vieira campaigned early for adequate funding for staff at her school. Another female physical education teacher is a critical need, and perhaps some help with high class sizes in English, math, physics and other honors courses could be addressed, Vieira said.
A half-time physical education teacher at the high school, and an increase in hours for the part-time secretary at Cushman Elementary School were the only other “new” staffing proposed in the fiscal 2019 draft budget.
Addressing the school board during the public input portion of the meeting, Vieira noted that a number of those upper-level courses had 29 or more students. She also wondered if a temporary suspension of the School Choice admissions policy should be adopted to help deal with growing class sizes at the high school. School Choice gives students from other districts the chance to enroll in Dartmouth's school system.
Gifford later consulted a list and indicated that other honors and AP courses only had “eight, 11 or 12, or 17 students” enrolled, and perhaps some minor staffing adjustments could be made in a few weeks, when student course selection ends. Only one or two of the students in the 29-plus classes are School Choice students, she noted.
The proposed spending plan for fiscal 2019 also includes $1.4 million requested for capital improvement projects, and the use of just over $350,000 in School Choice tuition revenues collected over the past few years.
Kiely proposed using $250,000 in tuition revenues to help finance media center renovations at the high school and an innovation lab at the middle school; $75,000 for the salary of the certified behavioral specialist position in the proposed occupational therapy program; $15,000 for a strength and conditioning coach at the high school; $7,000 for elementary STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs; and $5,000 for music teacher stipends.
Overall, developing a budget plan was “challenging” at times, Kiely said, prompting the decision to request use of the School Choice tuition funds.
“We’ve re-allocated our resources to the best of our abilities, to best meet the needs of our students,” Kiely said of the draft spending package.