School District Requests 5.55% Budget Increase

On January 6, Schools Superintendent Dr. William McKersie presented a budget request for next fiscal year that calls for an operating increase of nearly $3 million — up by 5.55 percent — and $1.16 million in capital expenditures.

Dr. McKersie said, "the story of this budget is actually a very lean one," in view of a "challenging growth number."

"There's going to be some hard decisions to make," said Board of Education chair Tony Pesco.

The challenges include a 4.2 percent rise in salaries, which grow from new hires and contractual pay raises, a 13 percent increase in employee benefits, and transportation costs far greater than expected.

The school district anticipates total enrollments to decline by four students next year. But first grade enrollment could increase by about a dozen, putting pressure on maximum class size guidelines. The administration proposes adding two first grade sections at Hurlbutt and two new teacher positions, adding just over $200,000 to that school's operating budget.

By this time five years from now, consultants Milone and MacBroom project school enrollments in Weston will have declined by four percent and will continue to drop in future years.

Driving the Hike

Together, salary increases, higher medical insurance premiums, and dental benefit expenses account for about half of the requested budget hike.

A few years ago, the district shifted its medical plan to the State system, which initially saved money. Since then, premiums have risen and continue to do so. Next year, premiums bump up even more with an unanticipated two percent regional surcharge. The district is still self-insured for dental coverage, but costs there have grown as well.

Higher in-district transportation expenses are expected to add another $161,000 to the budget. There is also a significantly larger allocation for special education transportation, which grows by more than $350,000, up 76 percent. Something appears to have gone wrong in budgeting for these costs last year, as they greatly exceed the amount planned. They are a significant factor in the district's current-year forecast of a $500,000 deficit.

"We missed something," Finance Director Phillip Cross told the Board of Finance in December. It is not clear how that happened. Whatever did happen occurred before Mr. Cross came onboard only three months ago.

Dr. McKersie and Mr. Cross told the Board of Finance they are working to find ways to close this year's deficit. As it was, the administration began the fiscal year in the hole. Expenses totaling $262,000 appeared after the fiscal 2019-20 budget was approved. Those costs included higher-than-expected pension contributions, a project to repair Revson Field, and the associated hiring of a groundskeeper.

Next year's proposed budget includes a measure of savings. At Monday's Board of Education meeting, Mr. Cross said just over $500,000 would be saved from lower costs in other employee benefits, technology equipment leases, special education tuition, and excess cost reimbursements.

Capital Items

The administration's $1.16 million capital request contains six items, all long-identified needs:

The most expensive item, estimated at $515,000, involves replacing unit ventilators and corridor ventilation at the high school's C wing with a rooftop system. In the D wing, unit ventilators would be replaced at an estimated $115,000.

At the middle school, $20,563 is requested to replace the art room cabinets and fixtures. Replacing 7th and 8th grade lockers would cost an estimated $110,000, and renovating pool locker rooms and bathrooms comes in at $200,000.

At Hurlbutt, replacing the East House steam traps and heat controls is put at $110,000.

Some of the figures appear to be quite preliminary and will probably come into more specific relief later in the process. In the budget document, estimates for pool lockers and bathrooms and the East House work are clearly noted as having been made in 2017. Even then they may have only been best guesses.

It is possible another item will have to find a place on the list. Members of the Town's Building Committee recently discovered serious concrete degradation at Weston High School.

The scope of the problem, urgency to address it, and potential financial impact are not yet known. But, in an indication of a revived spirit of cooperation between the Town's Building Committee and the school district, the district immediately funded, and the Building Committee engaged, services of an engineering consultant to examine the problem.

The Board Begins Its Review

Members of the Board of Education began their formal line-by-line examination of the budget request in a four-hour workshop on January 8. They got less than halfway through, so scheduled another session. They will have even more to examine when the administration furnishes more data.

Board member Ruby Hedge asked the administration to restore a feature of the budget document that existed in prior years, a detailed explanation of significant changes in each section. This, she said, would particularly benefit new members who were not on the Board last budget season.

Ms. Hedge later said the budget information looked like "controlled transparency." Dr. McKersie said members only had to ask for more data. Ms. Hedge said she wanted it "up front."

Calls for Transparency

Board chairman Tony Pesco also called for "more transparency," and said he wants a "true view of the cost of running the district" which identifies the functions and positions that are "close to the students" and those that are not.

Member Taffy Miller said it is "important to acknowledge that everyone touches the classroom," but asked the administration to provide job descriptions for all positions, which Human Resources Director Lewis Brey said he would update and submit.

Dr. Pesco also requested, and Mr. Cross agreed to supply, a column of projected current-year actuals so members could compare them to the new budget.

That feature's absence was an issue last year for the Board of Selectmen, who said its omission made it impossible to assess the budget request in the context of today's realities. The district's former finance director said the figures could lead to misinterpretation and, despite being only one new column on each page, would make the budget book too large.

The Selectmen were not pleased, and had already criticized the district for what they saw as a budget process lacking transparency. But the Board of Selectmen has no authority over the school district operating budget nor its staff. The Board of Education does.

Where to Cut?

It is early in the process. But, judging from the tenor of the presentations and discussions so far, It is hard to imagine a 5.55 percent increase standing its ground very long.

Dr. Pesco asked if administrators had done anything to "bend the cost curve down" to a more palatable level before bringing it to the Board. Dr. McKersie said, "We've cut everywhere we could without touching the teacher."

"We are at the point in Weston," said Dr. McKersie, "where there will potentially be changes to personnel and programs." But he said decisions about staffing levels, small class sections, overall class sizes, administrative structure, and facilities are properly left to the Board.

In 2019, fiscal pressures were the same as this year: contractual salary increases, higher benefits costs, more special education outplacements, and transportation. The initial request called for a 4.4 percent increase, which Dr. McKersie acknowledged was “the largest on record in many years." The school board gave the budget a slight trim, deferring deeper cuts to the Board of Finance, which obliged. The final operating budget, approved by voters, rose just under 3.2 percent.

The Elephant in the Room

The likelihood of a steadily declining student population and how it relates to staff levels presents a dilemma. Dr. McKersie notes that the district must "staff up for who is in front of you," the number of students enrolled in any given year.

Board vice chair Melissa Walker sees it differently. "Looking at it year-to-year," she said, "and seeing only a one percent decline makes decision-making difficult. When you look at it over ten years and see a ten percent decline, you have to think more strategically."

Dr. Pesco agreed. "Year-by-year thinking traps you," he said. "When you look at the long term, you start scratching your head."

Between 2009 and 2019, said Dr. Pesco, the district's staff increased by 14 positions, including two additional teachers, while the student population dropped by 278, an 11 percent decline.

Public Input

Wednesday, January 15 at 7:00 pm in the Weston High School cafeteria: a district-wide budget presentation to the PTO.

Tuesday, January 21 at 7:00 pm in the Weston Middle School library: an open forum with the Board of Education for the community to share comments and ask questions.

Monday, January 27 at 6:00 pm in the Weston Middle School library (if needed): a second budget Q&A session.

Thursday, January 30 at 6:00 pm in the Weston Middle School library: the Board of Education will vote on the budget request.

By the Charter, the budget request must be transmitted to the Board of Selectmen no later than February 3. The Selectmen will review it in February. It goes to the Board of Finance in March, and a public hearing will be held. The Board of Finance will act in April, finalizing a budget that will be proposed to the Annual Town Budget Meeting on the 22nd and voted on by public referendum on May 2.

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