Costs associated with unfunded state mandates as well as facility maintenance and security needs has administrators seeking a 2.29% increase in the 2013-14 proposed school budget.
School Supt. Dr. Bernard Josefsberg presented the administration’s proposed $15,584,840 education budget for the coming year — an increase of $349,429 over the 2012-13 school figure — to the Board of Education Jan. 15.
“I think this is a very reasonable budget,” Peggy Sullivan, school director of finance and operations, told the Easton Courier in an interview Tuesday.
“We have worked hard to keep the number down,” added Ms. Sullivan. “We have kept the teachers’ salary increases to 3%, which is below the contractual obligation.”
Board of Education Chairman Adam Dunsby also called the budget proposal “reasonable” but said that it was too early to discuss specific recommendations from Dr. Josefsberg until the board finishes its deliberations next month.
“The budget proposal includes the addition of several specialists that the superintendent feels is necessary to have in place to deal with curriculum mandates from the state,” said Mr. Dunsby. “That is part of the conversation the board is having right now about the budget. But any budget we finally propose is going to preserve and advance the quality of education in Easton.”
Ms. Sullivan said that even with projections showing declining enrollment — with the school population at Samuel Staples Elementary School and Helen Keller Middle School dropping from 1,021 to 962 — increased costs in health insurance; capital improvements; security enhancements; and unfunded mandates are driving the “slight increase.”
Health insurance accounts are projected to increase by 9%, but Ms. Sullivan said she hoped that number could decrease before a final vote on the budget is taken.
“Our [town’s] experience doesn’t mirror what is happening nationally,” said Ms. Sullivan. “I’m getting updated numbers, and I’m thinking we can see a drop in that increase.”
Capital improvements total $112,225, with exterior painting at the elementary school ($27,255); driveway and parking lot work ($15,000) and the phase 1 classroom window replacement ($50,000) at the middle school; faculty bathroom upgrades ($20,000) planned. Security enhancements project at $78,100, but Ms. Sullivan said that this could be another area where savings could found.
The other major budget driver, according to Ms. Sullivan, is state mandated reform related to professional development, all of which is unfunded, under the Educational Reform Act to be effective July 1.
Overall, the proposed 2013-14 budget calls for a reduction of 4.0 full-time equivalent staffers in reaction to the enrollment decline. Staff reassignments will make accommodations for the change in the staffing model and “will allow the district to make great strides in preparing students for the 21st century,” said Dr. Josefsberg.
Ms. Sullivan said that the budget proposal calls for reducing two classes at the elementary school and a general education classroom section at the middle school.
“We are reducing five general education individuals,” said Ms. Sullivan, “and we are asking that two of the five be reassigned to coaching and training other teachers.”
Ms. Sullivan said that the budget proposal calls for a .5 social worker at the elementary school and the addition of a media specialist at the middle school.
Overall, costs in the 2013-14 education budget associated with the mandated reform include $21,666 for professional evaluation classroom observation training; $27,220 for common core curriculum revision; and $19,300 for benchmark and state standardized testing.
At the middle school, Dr. Josefsberg proposes math/ILA specialists (.8 full-time equivalent) and aide (1) positions designed to increase availability of the existing ILA specialist and math specialist to coach fellow teachers.
“The recent expansion of unfunded mandates will serve as drivers in upcoming budgets,” said Dr. Josefsberg in a document titled “Enrollment Decline as Opportunity” submitted to the Board of Education earlier this month.
“The enrollment decline notwithstanding, I assume that Easton would view as unacceptable a decline in educational quality,” added Mr. Josefsberg. “Measured student performance is currently very positive, but the ‘next generation assessments’ that will be administered in 2015 will require more differentiated staffing arrangements to replicate our current standing.”
“I submit that Easton’s adaptive response to recent mandated change has been somewhat laggard,” stated Dr. Josefsberg in this document. “Maintaining that level of response as those mandates intensify invites dysfunction and unacceptable outcomes.
“For this reason, it is important to replace the notion that ‘we shouldn’t be adding positions as enrollment declines’ with the idea that ‘we should re-deploy appropriate resources harvested due to enrollment decline into differentiated roles designed to provide students and staff with critical learning experiences.”
Since the 2008-09 school year, Easton schools enrollment has declined from 1,178 students to the current population of 1,021 students, a 13% decline. According to Dr. Peter Prowda’s projections, the enrollment decline will continue through the 2021-22 school year, when the numbers drop to 618 students. For the nearer term, Dr. Prowda predicts 741 students in 2017-18.
While the town needs to decide how to best house the declining school population in the years to come, Dr. Josefsberg stated that in the meantime, meeting the state’s new mandates are the primary objective for administrators.
“Enrollment decline provides Easton with an opportunity to adapt the system to the challenges at hand within the existing resource base,” added Dr. Josefsberg.