Letter – Schools Can Accurately and Ethically Account for Every Dollar

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In her April 28th letter, Town Meeting Linda Phillips notes that “the School Committee budget is expansive . . . “ and can be “difficult to analyze.” She then poses several questions she believes FinCom members should have asked about the proposed School Budget and makes several statements about school finances.

I agree that the school budget is “expansive” and can be “difficult to analyze.” However, I am concerned that Mrs. Phillips’ questions and statements might confuse and possibly even mislead readers. Although I am not a financial expert, I was a Budget Parent this year and I have been following the FY18 school budget process closely. I would like to share the relevant information that I’ve heard and read during Budget Parent and School Committee meetings, from school staff during the Superintendent’s Office Hours, and in the supplemental budget documents prepared in response to questions from School Committee members and townspeople—including Mrs. Phillips herself. (Her questions to RPS and their dozens of pages of responses have been published in recent School Committee packets.)

  1. The Superintendent explained that after several years of cuts to the schools’ level service budget, the least damaging way to meet mandated obligations yet balance the FY 2018 budget was by proposing individual cuts totaling approximately $850,000 and one programmatic cut of nearly $450,000. The programmatic cut was to reduce the double English Language Arts period in grade 6, eliminate foreign language in grade 7, and reduce foreign language options in grade 8. This programmatic cut would have resulted in laying off 7 Middle School teachers and reducing the Middle School day from 7 to 6 periods. Administration explained that this cut would be painful and difficult, but of the several unpalatable options they considered, it would have had the least long-term impact on student outcomes. The School Committee reluctantly accepted the $850,000 in proposed cuts but expressed its belief that the Middle School programmatic cut would prove extremely detrimental to our highly successful Middle School model and would be difficult to restore if the town were to vote for an override in the upcoming year. Thus, after much thoughtful public deliberation, the School Committee decided to respectfully request that the town consider funding the existing Middle School program for the upcoming year. The Town Manager publicly supported this request in his so-called “Cogent Plan Forward.”
  2. Many of the revenue sources that Mrs. Phillips cites in the school budget are in Revolving Fund accounts; by law these funds can be used only for the programs that generated them. In other words, the $1.1 million generated by Extended Day must be spent on Extended Day; it cannot be used to fund other areas of the budget. The same principle applies to Full Day Kindergarten and RISE pre-school funds.
  3. The grant money and state funding our town receives for the METCO Program more than pays for it. Thus there has been no cost to the town for participating in this widely lauded program.
  4. The major expenditure in the school budget is of course labor. Special Education is also a major cost. It is difficult to estimate precise future labor costs, for well-known reasons, and future Special Education costs, as the numbers of students participating in these programs fluctuates from year to year and students’ needs change. Thus when preparing the upcoming year’s budget, the schools cannot predict the exact cost of every line item. Even so, the schools have been remarkably accurate in their budgeting; they typically return about one half of one percent in unspent money to the town each year.
  5. The added staffing in the past 15 years has been largely for the Extended Day Program, which pays for itself (as explained above), and for Special Education. In her letter, Mrs. Phillips acknowledges that as a result of expanding our in-district Special Education programs, we have saved immense sums in out-of-district placements; thus these added positions have also in effect “paid for themselves.”

Unlike Mrs. Phillips, I found the FinCom discussion about the FY 18 school budget request heartening. I heard conscientious fellow citizens acknowledge the rationale for the request, articulate their concerns about using additional Free Cash to fund the school budget, and express clearly that without a major new revenue source—most likely an Override–they could not do so beyond FY18.

In addition, as Mrs. Phillips notes, FinCom members asked dozens of questions in advance of their meeting about the School Budget. They could have done so only by studying the School Budget request in detail. Indeed, I saw FinCom members (and Selectmen) at several School Committee meetings dedicated to the budget, and of course all of the meetings were available for viewing on RCTV. I thank FinCom members for investing the time necessary to understand the town and school budgets and for deciding to support the School Committee’s request to preserve our existing Middle School program for one additional year.

I also thank Reading Public Schools staff for their willingness to answer the questions that so many of us have posed over the past several months. I have found the staff knowledgeable and transparent, and I myself am confident that Reading Public Schools can accurately and ethically account for “every dollar.”

Sherri L. VandenAkker, Ph.D.

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