School budget includes new therapeutic program, tech renovations

Feb 13, 2018

Dartmouth schools could get a new elementary-level therapy program and an innovation lab under the district’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2019.

The School Committee got its first look at the $43 million budget at its February 12 meeting. This year’s budget is up 2.8 percent from last year’s $41.9 million budget, but it is notably light on major additions due to budget constraints.

“We have not built in a great deal of additions,” said School Business Administrator James Kiely. “In fact, overall when you look at our base budget basically we’ve incorporated some savings in tuitions in the budget. That’s all we’ve been able to do.”

The lack of additions, and a long list of budget requests that were not funded, left School Committee members unhappy with the level of state support the district receives.

“I’m a broken record on the fact that we don’t have enough money,” said Chair Shannon Jenkins. “We talk about things that weren’t funded, things that principals put forth as absolutely necessary.”

“The state is unfortunately not giving us the fair share I think we need,” John Nunes added.

District officials highlighted a new elementary therapeutic program serving students in grades 2-5 as one of the few additions to the budget. The program will add one full-time special education teacher and two full-time teacher assistants to Quinn Elementary School to better support students who require extensive services.

Traditionally, students with such needs attend out-of-district education services like the South Coast Educational Collaborative, but Gifford said a long-term goal of the project is to not only retain students in-district, but also draw students who may have already left back to the public school system.

In addition to providing support for those students in need, it could also save the district money. Spending on tuitions -  funds the district pays for students to attend schools out-of-district - are down 4.3 percent to due to the new therapeutic program the budget proposes.

A new district social worker and behavior analyst would also be added under the budget proposal, but their roles would extend to other initiatives throughout the district.

The budget is broken into four other areas in addition to tuitions. In instruction, the proposed budget is up 3.1 percent to $32.3 million due to contractual obligations. Administration costs are up 3.4 percent to $1.1 million.

Maintenance and utilities is down 2.4 percent to $3.5 million, a move Kiely credits to recent energy efficiency projects.

“We were pleased to note some of the energy efficiency projects we’ve been working on, as well as our long-term contract to purchase natural gas, have allows us to save some money going forward,” Kiely said.

Other services is up 7.2 percent to $4.6 million. Included in that total is transportation costs. A new three-year contract by Tremblay’s Bus Company was approved at the meeting, which increased the district’s transportation costs by 17 percent from the district’s previous contract.

The new budget also taps into School Choice funding for several major projects at all levels of the district. School Choice allows students from neighboring cities and towns to attend Dartmouth schools. Districts sending students to Dartmouth then pay the district the cost of tuition.

At the high school, $15,000 is allotted for a new strength and conditioning coach, $5,000 for music stipends, and a tie-in with capital improvement funding to provide one-to-one computing.

Affecting both the high school and middle school is $250,000 for a renovation of the schools’ media centers and the addition of an innovation lab. At the high school, that would house equipment like 3D printers acquired through a grant.

District-wide, the board-certified behavior analyst would be funded with $75,845 and $7,000 would go towards supporting iSTEM clubs at elementary schools. The before-school clubs include science, technology, engineering, and mathematics activities.

Officials were unable to find room in the budget for $779,008 in requests from school administrators. Among the items not funded included an instructional technology specialist at the high school, a middle school physical assistant teacher assistant, social workers and behavioral specialists at elementary schools, and increased expense budgets in athletics and music.

School Committee members did have concerns with the budget. Member Kathleen Amaral worried about funding the behavioral analyst through School Choice funds because the program needs to be renewed every year.

“I would not want to risk losing that position if we were not to continue School Choice,” Amaral said.

A vote to continue School Choice next year was on the agenda for the February 12 meeting. With member Chris Oliver absent, however, the committee decided to hold off on the vote until its next meeting when all members are present.

Chair Shannon Jenkins added the extra $105,000 a year Dartmouth may be on the hook for to cover renovations at Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton could compound matters.

Carol Karafotis praised the new behavioral program, but worried about the extra support Quinn teachers will need to place on the program.

A budget hearing is scheduled for the School Committee’s next meeting. A vote could come in late March, at which point the budget will move to the Finance Committee and Town Meeting.