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Finance Committee (Fincom), the supposed guardian of taxpayer’s interest, deserves a failing grade for its review of the Reading School Committee’s 2018 Budget. It is Fincom’s responsibility to review two separate budgets, Town side and School side, with an understanding and analysis of all details in both budgets.
This year’s Fincom’s review of the Town side budget involved two separate meetings, each lasting 3 ½ hours, or approximately 7 hours total. Fincom reviewed each department and line items with Town department heads and the Town Manager, to substantiate the amounts for each specific need. The Town side portion of the entire budget is approximately 33% of the entire budget.
In contrast, the School Department consumes nearly 66% of the total budget or $41million. Fincom completed their review of the School Committee budget at one meeting, in less than 2 hours which included a 45 minute monologue by the School Superintendent.
The School Committee budget is expansive, with myriad categories that lack simplification, making it unnecessarily complicated and difficult to analyze. Fincom members presented 40 questions in advance to the School Committee before the meeting and received handouts. Three committee members adopted observer status and asked no questions.
Fincom members failed to ask these urgent questions:
- Why did the School Committee present an unbalanced Budget, disregarding the 1.4% ceiling increase that Selectmen, Town Manager, Town Accountant and School Committee had agreed to last Fall?
- Why was there no challenge to the School Committee’s choice to cut select positions (7 middle school teachers), causing an uproar during budget hearings, when some FY’18 accounts already had enough surpluses ($259k) to retain those same teachers?
- Why does the School Committee continue the practice, year after year, of budgeting ever higher numbers in certain areas when actual expenditures are far less?
- Why, without School Committee votes, was money moved from one account to supplement others that went over budget?
Without historical perspective, monitoring the School Committee budget loses its effectiveness. Since 2004, student enrollment has remained around 4250 students; yet since 2004 to present the School Committee has:
- ADDED, not cut 60 more full time personnel (FTE’s).
- Increased spending by $12M for same number of students.
- Grown the METCO program (racial imbalance) by at least 30 more students.
- Added 5 Special Ed (SPED) students from other districts at $32K ea. = +$160K revenue.
- Reduced out-of-district SPED students by 11, saving at least $462K+.
- Reduced 26 Individual Ed Plan (IEP) students district wide and benefited from the savings associated with same.
- Added over $1.1M in revenue by enlarging the for-pay extended day program.
- Increased the Reading Integrated School Experience (RISE) optional pre-school program payments, receiving $280K in revenue.
- Received $840 K in revenue for the optional all-day kindergarten program.
- Used grant position staffing to morph into FTE’s when grants expire.
- Granted full benefits to part time employees @ only 20 hrs. per week.
- Disregarded correlating costs for benefits (paid for by the Town side) when school staffing numbers increase.
It was disheartening to watch Fincom take it upon themselves to advocate at Town Meeting for the School Committee’s request for an additional $588K from free cash. Clearly, Fincom has lost sight of its mission as an objective watchdog for the taxpayers. Instead, Fincom has become an advocate for more School Department spending.
It is imperative that citizens in the Town of Reading receive better financial accountability from Fincom for all things relating to our students and the schools that we all value so highly. Until voters are confident that they know where every dollar of the School Committee’s budget is spent and why, the opposition to another override will likely continue.
Linda Phillips, Town Meeting Member