School officials pitch $45.5 million budget amid fiscal concerns

Feb 10, 2020

The first draft of the 2021 Dartmouth Public Schools budget includes few additions, a budget shortfall, and big worries for a School Committee questioning the district’s short-term and long-term financial health. 

At the February 10 School Committee meeting, district administrators unveiled the current draft of the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget. The $45.5 million proposal represents a 3.2 percent increase over 2020's budget. Despite the increase, there are few new additions to the district budget. 

“When I look at this budget, I think it represents a level service budget,” School Business Administrator Jim Kiely told the committee. “Really we’re looking to maintain all of the good things we do now as best we can, and focus on that level service.” 

The only major addition to the budget Kiely highlighted is a $45,000 proposal to add a district-wide technology technician position. The position would be funded by reducing two teacher assistant positions, saving $40,000. 

Kiely said the position is necessary to support the district’s technology initiatives, which includes the adoption of a one-to-one computing initiative that gave every high school student and some middle school students Chromebooks. 

“It has become evident to us that we need to support technology better than we are now,” Kiely said. 

There were $780,490 in unfunded budget requests from school administrators, which ranged from a new social worker at the high school, specialists and teacher assistants at the middle school, and additional teachers at the elementary schools.

The budget is still in draft form, and is still being worked on. Kiely noted that currently the $45.5 million figure and what the town anticipates in offering the School Department for its budget is off by “several hundred thousand dollars.” Kiely did stress that number is a “moving target.” 

School Committee member Chris Oliver noted that such a large gap has the potential to begin affecting positions if it cannot be filled elsewhere. 

He also shared concerns he has with the district’s ability to continue on its current fiscal track, given Dartmouth’s low tax rate and slowing new growth limiting the availability of more funding. 

“Based on the numbers we’re looking at year after year after year, I am seriously concerned about the long term impact of continuing to fund… I don’t think this is sustainable,” Oliver said. 

Member Shannon Jenkins noted the district is still in the bottom 13 percent of the state in terms of per pupil spending, and that to even get up to the state average it would require a budget increase of about $10 million. 

“I agree I don’t think this model is sustainable right now, and I am seriously concerned,” Jenkins said. “We’re doing the best we can with what we have, but there’s only so much blood you can get from a stone.” 

Member Carol Karafotis noted it is a struggle every year to fight for school funding, and stressed the need to provide information and charts to show why the district needs what it asks for. 

“It’s the same old same old arguments again and again,” Karafotis said. “Why do teachers need more money? There’s no appreciation by some people of what teaching is and the sacrifices our teachers make, our administrators make, and anyone who works in the School Department makes to provide quality education to our students.” 

Member John Nunes suggested the town should look into its budgeting practices.

“We’re trying to hold a budget together with nail wire and chewing gum,” Nunes said. “I think even shortly we’re going to be in big trouble trying to do that.” 

The current draft of the fiscal year 2021 budget is still being tweaked. The public will have an opportunity to weigh in on the proposal during a budget hearing on March 23. 

Adding to officials’ fiscal worries is the future of a possible Proposition 2 ½ override vote. It would allow the town to raise property taxes above the state-mandated limit of 2.5 percent. In order to go into effect, it would need to be approved by both Town Meeting and voters in a ballot question.  

The idea has been discussed at Select Board and Finance Committee meetings over the past few months to address rising town employee healthcare costs, which is a major sticking point in union contract negotiations which have stalled. 

Nunes referenced January 27’s Select Board meeting, during which town officials presented an estimate on what the override would cost taxpayers. 

“There was no other discussion from the board,” Nunes said. “They’re not meeting again until March, and I don’t know what they’re doing, I honestly don’t. Everyone needs an answer.”

In response, the School Committee unanimously voted to request the Select Board to add a possible override to its next meeting agenda to further discuss the idea, and officially support the idea.