BURLINGTON – The School Committee recently conducted a thorough discussion pertaining to the fiscal year 2021 budget guideline approved by Ways & Means.

School Supt. Dr. Eric Conti took part in the guideline planning with the town’s financial team, as well as representatives from the Board of Selectmen and Ways & Means. At first, the School Department was looking at a guideline of 3 percent for their operating budget.

“We felt that was insufficient with our growing student needs and open contracts, so the compromise Ways & Means agreed to is a 3.5 percent blended operating budget,” detailed Dr. Conti, acknowledging the school’s operating budget is expected to start out at 3.75 percent, but could decrease or increase as more information solidifies. “As for schools, we need to keep level services and programming for our staff and students.”

The lower guidelines are part of the standard negotiation process, where town officials typically present a mostly conservative guideline figure.

The guidelines, as approved by the Board of Selectmen earlier this year, entail a 3.5 percent blended (general government and schools) operating budget parameter (was 3.25 percent in FY `19) and a tax levy (the amount of money raised through property taxes) no greater than 4.5 percent (was 5 percent in FY `19). These guidelines were recommended and ratified by Ways & Means.

Though the School Committee did not vote on the 3.5 percent guideline, several members talked about the guideline handcuffing the School Department’s operating budget.

“I understand the town administrator and town accountant are doing their jobs very well, and as usual, they are coming up with conservative guidelines they feel are fairly safe moving into the future,” remarked School Committee member Christine Monaco. “But I do not feel the [3.5 percent] guideline is not quite enough for a comfortable level, considering the tough times we have had in recent years.”

The “tough times” Monaco referenced are in connection to Memorial Elementary School and Fox Hill Elementary School losing their assistant principals two years ago, due to budget constraints.

“I want a blended 4 percent operating budget guideline,” added Monaco. “We have a serious need for nurses and we lost two assistant principals two years ago. I am uncomfortable with a 3.5 percent guideline.”

Monaco noted the loss of the assistant principals have put unwarranted stress on the principals at Memorial and Fox Hill, with their responsibilities multiplying since the needed assistants were let go two years ago. For example, the recently implemented rigorous evaluation process for principals mandates them to evaluate every single teacher in their school. The assistant principals used to help with this extensive task, which results in a thorough summation and grading scale for evaluations that has to be provided every year by the principals.

School Committee member Stephen Nelson commended Ways & Means for getting the blended operating budget guideline from 3 percent to 3.5 percent, but quickly echoed Monaco’s sentiments.

“It is not a doomsday scenario at 3.75 percent for our current operating budget, but I do not think we can bring back two assistant principals under the guideline. I think we are shortchanging our academic program,” lamented Nelson.

Ways & Means members were in attendance for the School Committee meeting.

They recognized the pressing need for reintegrating the assistant principals and nurses, but suggested school officials put together their 3.75 percent operating budget sooner than later for quick assessment reasons.

“With school officials embarking on the contract negotiation process with the unions, those results will go a long way in telling us if we need to increase the school budget from 3.75 percent,” explained the Ways & Means member. “It is hard to know what you are going to need until the proposed budget is complete.”

With uncertainty looming among the committee members, no vote was taken, but residents can expect updates on this budget matter to be recurring in the coming weeks.

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