July 9, 2015: Facing “typical” school budget challenges

July 9, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

The Belmont Public Schools (BPS) budget represents the largest part of our Town’s budget. Acknowledging that fact says nothing about whether the schools receive “enough,” or even “too much,” money. However, given that out of every $100 spent in the Town’s general operating budget, $58.80 is devoted to the BPS, people should understand what factors do (and do not) affect the school budget. Misinformation abounds.

Much has been said about increasing enrollment in Belmont’s schools.  The numbers are sobering.  In its annual budget review this May, the Town’s Warrant Committee (WC) told Town Meeting that “over the last ten years, student enrollment has increased by 545 students, more than the total population of any of our four elementary schools.” The rate of projected growth for BPS, however, has slowed.  Next year’s projected addition of 82 new students would be the smallest increase since 2012.

Even though the BPS is expected to add ten new teaching positions this coming year, the WC told Town Meeting that the cost of adding teachers is offset somewhat by hiring younger, lower cost, teachers. In fact, the percent of the budget allocated to instruction will change very little.

Two substantial increases in the BPS budget involve expensive commitments that the BPS cannot control.  First, the WC told Town Meeting, “special education costs continue to occupy a larger and larger percent of the education budget.” Second, “the number of English Language Learners…has nearly doubled” since 2012.    Belmont’s obligations in both of these areas are imposed by law. The WC called them “mandated school costs.”

The BPS administrative budget is reasonably lean.  Administrative costs are only 6.3% of the school’s operating budget next year, a slight decrease from last year (6.7%).

While some people object to serving METCO students in times of increasing enrollment, those objections are not well-founded.  No METCO costs come from the school’s general funds budget.  METCO is paid entirely with outside funds.

Some parental concern has been expressed that Belmont pays too little attention to technology education. That concern may have some validity.  System-wide, Belmont devotes two full-time equivalent (FTE) positions to technology education.  Setting aside elementary and kindergarten, the most number of teaching positions are devoted to English and reading (33.20 FTE), Science (25.20 FTE), Social Studies (25.20 FTE), and Math (24.85 FTE).

The WC reported to Town Meeting that “employee salaries continue to be the primary driver of School Department budget growth,” accounting for two-thirds of next year’s increase in the school budget.  Salary levels, however, present a structural issue embedded in current union contracts. According to the WC, that structure –called the “step-and-lane system” of teacher compensation– “provides for increases averaging 4.4% during the first fourteen years of employment even in the absence of negotiated cost-of-living raises.”  Teacher salaries, in other words, increase even if there is no cost-of-living increase.  “These kinds of salary increases,” the WC said, “virtually guarantee that school budget growth will outpace revenues.”

The issue of teacher salaries extends well beyond Belmont.  The WC told Town Meeting that “virtually all public school systems in Massachusetts employ some variant of the step-and-lane system.” In general, addressing teacher compensation must account for the fact that fundamental changes in the step-and-lane system will likely need to occur at the statewide level.  Nonetheless, the WC said, managing “salary inflation” is the most critical challenge facing the Belmont schools.

Belmont’s schools face challenges typical of public education in general. The schools must address increasing enrollment, expanding curriculum needs, outmoded salary structures, and the need to provide equal education for all. That job requires creative thinking from the entire community, not merely school officials.

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