As we settle in to the first day of the school year, I thought I’d provide an update on the budget for the 2019-2020 year. In June, the budget was passed unanimously by the School Committee and then approved by the City Council. Overall, the budget increased a total of $2.6 Million over the 2018-2019 school year. While that sounds like a lot, remember that the lion’s share of any increase will be quickly absorbed by normal operations to cover increases in salary, benefits, and general increases in the cost of purchases. In this case, the real gain for NEW equipment/programs/staff curricula is about $400,000, which isn’t much to work with to infuse new things into the district. Highlights of the new things this budget brings to our district includes:
Increase in full-time security personnel
High School Complex
Membership in the Greater Boston League (GBL) for our sports teams
Addition of a paraprofessional to the middle schools library staff
Purchase of a math curriculum from Better Lessons/Illustrative Math
Our new membership in the GBL brings an offering of competitive sports at the middle school level
Full-time kindergarten aides in all elementary schools (previously only the Roberts had all full-time aides)
Full implementation of the FOSS science curriculum
Purchase of a dyslexia assessment tool
The budget hearing discussions also noted that the district is watching class sizes at the two largest elementary schools, Brooks and Roberts. An additional Kindergarten classroom was added at Brooks over the summer.
The other thing that is important to note is that the City Council approved $200,000 in capital funds to replace aging technology equipment. There were comments during the hearings that suggested there was additional spending in the 2019-2020 school budget for technology, but it is not an easy single line item to view. I’m seeking some clarification on this and will keep you posted.
During the budget development process, various departments presented their narrative and budget requests. I think it's important to note that the requests for additional funding across the board were rather modest and likely do not represent any level of a full wish list. It is a practical approach and not uncommon in budgeting exercises. Between these meetings and the final budget, the city learned of the significant funding loss from the state and, as a result, the district had to remove items that were discussed as potential new requests. Things that didn’t make the final budget include:
An additional Physical Education teacher at the high school to alleviate scheduling issues that impact our vocational students
A Director of World Language position
Additionally, the final budget saw a $236K reduction in the Buildings and Grounds budget from the original proposed budget. One of the things that is so difficult about a school budget in general is that your budget can only reflect what costs and revenue you can anticipate. What actually happens is another matter. On the cost side, this isn’t unlike a household budget. But a school budget’s revenue side varies widely and rather continuously based on student enrollment and funding, and this is different than a typical household budget where the ‘revenue’ (generally, the income of those in the household), doesn’t vary widely or as unexpectedly. Sure, there are always reasons a household budget’s revenue will change unexpectedly, but that variability is often the result of some larger change, rather than fluctuation that occurs all year. So, while it’s not that anything in particular was added to the budget that caused the Buildings and Grounds reduction, there is obviously less available for whatever the needs are of our buildings.
My two big takeaways on this budget cycle relate to Technology and Buildings and Grounds.
First, technology. We don’t have enough technology for our district’s needs, but bear with me for a minute on this example. Hypothetically, let’s say that we do have enough technology, in the form of Chromebooks, to meet our district strategy. I’m not aware that we have a stated goal, like a 1 to 1 student to Chromebook ratio, but to keep the math simple, let’s say this is the goal. This means we would need 4500 Chromebooks. Our ongoing budget needs to account for the fact that Chromebooks don’t last forever. If we assume a 4 year life span, which may be generous, this means that EACH school year we should be budgeting to replace about 1125 Chromebooks. At $200 each, that would be an ANNUAL line item of $225,000 to keep pace, once we have the technology in place to meet our goal. So we have work to do to get there. Steps include:
Outlining a strategy that defines our needs. Is it 1 to 1 ratio? Is it something else completely?
Infusing NEW technology into the district to get us to the goal.
Building an annual budget line item to sustain our technology. If you refer back to the fact that our budget increase was really only about $400K for new things, you’ll see how quickly adequate maintenance of our technology alone eats up this amount.
Second, buildings and grounds. For the first time in years, there is a capital plan that looks forward about 5 years to begin to plan for the needs of our school buildings. It accounts for things like curbs, playgrounds, roofs, air compressors, and small renovations of the high school. It is great that we have this plan, but it is only as good as the city’s ability to allocate free cash to fund the plan. It is by no means guaranteed that this money will be available each year. So while a reduction in our Buildings and Grounds budget from the original request was necessary to balance the budget and accommodate for the funding loss, we will continue to be faced with challenges around building maintenance. Our buildings need more maintenance than the current budget can give them. The Building and Grounds department does the very best possible job with the funding they have. They are frugal and committed to our schools. But we need to find ways to increase this budget to adequate levels. Maintenance is essential to ensuring our physical assets live their longest possible lives.
As I share this, we do know that the state budget provided an additional allocation of money for education and directed the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to determine its allocation. More details are available here. Notably, “The General Court conference committee added a line item to the State Budget for $7,500,000. The line item instructs the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to distribute these funds via the Charter School Tuition Reimbursement Account. This will allocate funds to municipalities that were harmed via the calculation. The allocation of these funds is at the sole discretion of the DESE.” So we will watch and see what funding is allocated to Medford, and then determine how to spend it.
Your call to action: As the new school year kicks into high gear and you enjoy the best that late summer and early fall has to offer, know that election season will quickly be upon us. Do what you can to tune into the candidates, and how they plan to address the budget needs of our schools, and frankly for our city. Ask tough questions. And be sure to understand how we can turn our goals into reality with careful planning, and an eye on the budget!