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Hopkinton School District, facing strains, pitches bigger budget

Hopkinton residents will vote tomorrow on their 2013-14 school budget, which has grown by nearly half a million dollars from this year’s, reflecting new pension costs and what officials say are essential increases in special education spending.

The proposed $17,640,137 operating budget includes $462,469 in new costs and would result in a 70-cent tax rate increase per $1,000 of assessed property value – roughly equivalent to last year’s increase.

Voters will also determine the fate of a renegotiated three-year contract agreement with the district’s support staff, which includes office, food service, student and library personnel. The new contract offers what Superintendent Steven Chamberlin calls slim wage increases that will make the district’s wages more regionally competitive.

The contracts also include a refashioned “longevity” rubric, which rewards employees who work in the district for more than 10 years, presenting small, step-based bonuses once every five years, rather than annually as is current practice. The public price tag for the contracts would be about $68,000 this year, $66,000 next year and $48,000 in 2015.

The total tax rate increase, if voters approve the operating budget, new contracts and all other additional costs, would be 97 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

The proposed budget is inflated partly by $268,930 in new pension expenses because the state is cutting its contributions to public employee retirement funds, and by $186,000 in additional funds being funneled to special education.

Chamberlin said the increased spending in special education would allow the district to enroll students with serious needs in specialized out-of-district programs.

As of December, there were 162 special education students enrolled in the district – 18 percent of total district enrollment. Chamberlin said yesterday that number has remained stable in recent years.

An additional hurdle the district is facing is $179,326 in lost state grant revenue tied to dipping enrollment. The student population, currently 940, has declined by 111 since 2006. That number is expected to drop again next year, though lower grades have stable numbers, which suggests that future numbers may even out.

As for other costs, the district has also proposed approximately $32,000 in new media and technology expenditures, including $24,231 to replace 8-year-old computer equipment and renew subscriptions to online databases. It has also requested $21,800 for property improvement projects,
such as installing energy-efficient lights and new hand dryers at the high school, and purchasing new cleaning and lawn equipment and a storage trailer.

There are some cuts in the proposed budget, including $75,000 from the elimination of driver education (the state is no longer paying for part of it) and $10,000 from switching to a managed print system.

School board and district budget Chairman David Luneau said his committee also managed to shave nearly $300,000 from the district’s original budget proposal. Still, he acknowledged that education is not cheap, particularly when revenue streams dry up and new costs arise as a result of state cuts.

“I think people should be critical and make sure they’re seeing the educational outcomes that they expect in Hopkinton,” he said. “But when you look at the increases that we’re facing this year, the pension increases especially, then I think you have to take that into account. I’ve always felt that excellent schools are a priority.”

Chamberlin reiterated those sentiments. “I do understand how difficult it is these days,” he said. “But what we do matters. It absolutely matters. And we need to make sure we do it well.”

The district’s annual meeting begins at 9 a.m. tomorrow at the high school auditorium.

An earlier version of this article misstated the date of the district’s meeting as today. It is Saturday.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319 or
jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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