July 26 2018

School Department has $1.7 Million FY18 Budget Deficit

By: Rich Hosford

The Burlington School Department will be before Town Meeting this September to request funds to cover a deficit in the Fiscal Year 2018 budget.


Superintendent Eric Conti informed the School Committee this week that there were more expenses in FY18 than had been budgeted for in the amount of roughly $1.7 million.


Conti said these expenses include $200,000 in employee stipends, $220,000 for substitute teachers, $400,000 for maintenance and $600,000 in special education transportation as well as some extra expenses for elementary school tutors.


Conti said stipends are difficult to predict because when the budget was created there were ongoing negotiations with the teachers’ union. He also said there was a bigger need for substitute teachers this year because a more than usual number of teachers were out on maternity and paternity leave - 35 in total compared to the average of 20.


The biggest factor, he said, is rising costs related to special education.


“Our special ed costs have been climbing significantly as was evidence in the request for more funding in the accommodated account this year,” he said, referencing a May Town Meeting warrant article for funds for special education costs.


In the previous two fiscal years the school department had similar, though smaller, deficits in its accommodated account for special education, totaling about $500,000 over the two years, Conti said. However, in those years leftover funds in the department’s operating budget, as well as funds in revolving accounts, were able to cover the bills when they came in. In FY18 those sources were not sufficient to cover what had been expended.


“From my perspective is this isn’t a two month problem or six month problem but a multi-year issue that is coming to fruition at the conclusion of FY18,” he said. “I believe the problem with Fiscal 18 actually started in Fiscal 16 when the accommodated account came in over expended.”  


Members of the School Committee expressed concern about the situation and about the need to go to Town Meeting for additional funds.


“I’ve been on the school committee a number of years and this is the first time this has come before me so I was pretty surprised by it,” member Christine Monaco said.  


Monaco added that she was confident in the new business office team. In June of 2017 the department appointed Robert Cunha as the department’s new Director of Facilities, Finance, & Technology and Nichole Coscia, formerly the town’s budget analyst, the office’s new Finance Manager.


“I know we have a new team and I think you’re doing a fine job and I think you’re probably doing things differently than they were a little more than a year ago,” she said.


One idea all School Committee members agreed upon was the need for them to get more information about the status of the budget and the department’s finances in a more regular manner.


“I think going forward we should try to figure out if we’re going to be overdrawn before we go to Town Meeting in May rather than after the fact,” member Stephen Nelson said. “We should put consideration into keeping more of a tab on spending so we can bring up an omnibus article in May rather than scrambling in September.”


Member Thomas Murphy agreed and suggested regular updates from the business office to the School Committee.


“I would have liked to have been made aware of some of these things as they were happening just so we’d be involved in the discussion in how best to handle them,” he said. “That didn’t happen so we should be putting some things in place to avoid this, not only from a philosophical standpoint but also a procedural standpoint.”


Murphy added he would like to get the structure for regular updates in place before September.


“I don’t want to, and don’t think we should, go to Town Meeting asking for the money to fill in these gaps without having in place certain black and white, firm, procedures to ensure this type of thing won’t happen again,” he said.  


In the end the School Committee voted to approve a placeholder warrant article for September with an exact amount left “to be determined” as the business office finalizes the exact amount needed to cover the FY18 expenses.   


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