Selectmen, the school committee and the finance committee met in joint session last Thursday to begin laying the groundwork for next year’s budget.
When all was said and done, selectmen voted to increase the general government’s budget by $434,000 for the next fiscal year and to increase the school department’s budget by $267,000, representing a 3 percent and 1 percent increase, respectively.
Superintendent of Schools C. Richard Canfield said the increase will do little to help bridge a early half-million dollar hole in the district’s budget next year.
Dr. Canfield said the school department is dealing with a $450,000 loss in grant money. He explained that the money was part of the federal government’s original stimulus package designed to help communities retain teachers and staff.
In addition to that loss, he said, he will also need to cover any increases to teacher salaries once contract negotiations are completed with the union.
Dr. Canfield said this unknown cost of contractual agreements is “a very sizeable variable.”
Selectman James W. Pierce, who made the motion on the budget increases, acknowledged the loss of the jobs grant money but said money that the school department collects from students living in other districts who attend Sandwich Public Schools should offset most of that loss.
But Dr. Canfield said the money that the school department receives from such tuition is already built into his budget.
“The concept of that School Choice program is that the money should be used to offset additional costs created as a result of students who choose to attend school in this district. It also helps to offset money lost when Sandwich students leave the district to attend other schools,” Dr. Canfield said.
Mr. Pierce also acknowledged the challenge that the school department will face with respect to covering additional expenses associated with step increases as well as the unknown costs of other contractual obligations. He said to cover these expenses, the school department should consider cutting $300,000 from its other expenses.
Initially, finance committee Chairman William Diedering III suggested level-funded budgets for both departments that would serve as baseline budgets along with directives for both department heads to build a priority list of items they would add back if any additional funds were available.
But selectmen balked at the suggestion.
“Level-funded does not mean level-serviced,” said Selectman Linell M. Grundman.
Expenses increase every year, she said. Just because a certain dollar amount was paid for certain services this year does not necessary mean that same amount will pay for those services next year. To keep pace with expenses, budgets need to increase.
“If we are directing them to build a level-funded budget—which means no more money than last year—that is sending a message to the community. Why couldn’t the baseline budget be level-serviced rather than level-funded?” she asked.
She went on to say that it would be interesting to see what a level-serviced budget would look like and to see how much money is needed to do that.
She said that the $3 million that the town is allocating for students who attend charter or public schools outside of Sandwich next year could quickly grow into a larger number, if the school department is required to cut services and programs to meet a 1 percent budget increase.
“If we don’t do a level-serviced budget, that $3 million [expense] is going to go up. We need to be prepared to have our services be the best and to preserve what we have. We almost always set the school department up in a position to have to ask for more,” she said.
School committee member Jessica A. Linehan asked if the selectmen would consider placing no restrictions on the budget and giving Dr. Canfield the opportunity to build a budget that reflects his vision for the school department. “I would like to see that played out so that we could see what that possibly looks like,” she said.
School committee member Marie A. Kangas pointed out that the 1 percent increase is going to present a challenge to the school department.
“To level-fund the school district would be placing us at zero. We will be looking at a huge loss of teachers, increases in class sizes and a decrease in programs. It’s a tumble-down effect and we are going
backward and not forward,” she said.
She agreed with her fellow board member’s suggestion. “Dr. Canfield is dealing with a budget that he did not create. I would like to wait to see what his vision is,” Ms. Kangas said.
School board member Nancy A. Crossman noted that a lot of parents are “watching what we do and to see what we are going to offer. I, too, would like to wait to see what Dr. Canfield has in his proposal,” she said.
But Mr. Diedering pointed out that the budget that Dr. Canfield builds based on this 1 percent increase can still be his vision, saying that how the school department spends its money and what programs it chooses are still up to the superintendent and the school committee.
Dr. Canfield said he has already informed people in the school department that they will have to justify all budget requests and that specific dollar amounts will not be provided just because those amounts were allocated in the past.
“I’ll be using a zero-based budget approach, where people must tell me exactly what they need and justify it,” he said.
Though he can cut back on some supplies and materials to cut expenses, he said that is a very small part of the school system’s budget. “The largest part is salary,” he said.
Dr. Canfield further stated that, as a member of the community, he does not want to do anything that will create divisiveness and that he will present a budget to the school board based on the direction given to him last Thursday night.
“If I’m forced to deconstruct the budget or cut programs, I am going to do it in such a way that it has a minimum impact to the students. This gives me an opportunity to make the case that I either can do this within the numbers that have been given to me or that the numbers they have given me are not sufficient for providing the current level of services,” Dr. Canfield said.
Mr. Pierce said that the 1 percent increase is not etched in stone.
“It’s a starting point,” agreed Selectmen Chairman Frank Pannorfi.
In a telephone interview this week, Mr. Pierce said that the combined increases total $701,000 and this could be covered from the $675,000 currently allocated to the stabilization along with the projected $50,000 budget balance, still leaving the town with a $24,000 balance.