Town officials express concern about possible future school budget deficit
Although no Wareham residents turned up to express opinions or ask questions about the school district’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2023, town officials brought up several concerns about Wareham Public Schools’ budget during a Dec. 2 joint meeting of the School Committee, Select Board and Finance Committee.
Business Manager Christine Suckow kicked off the public budget hearing by presenting the various aspects of the district’s requested $32,385,226 fiscal year 2023 budget.
She noted that officials have continued to make cuts to the budget since Nov. 9, when it was initially drafted and came to more than $36 million — which would have represented an 11 percent increase compared to fiscal year 2022.
“Understanding that that is unrealistic and would not be possible, we went back to the departments and the directors and the principals and had them make some reductions,” Suckow said.
The proposed reductions included eliminating all new staff requests and cutting five full-time employees. In addition, the district reduced its requested technology and supplies and materials budget by a combined $450,000. Finally, to make the budget work, the district will use $900,000 of circuit breaker funds, which are state reimbursements of a portion of the cost of special education.
Still, the proposed budget assumes the town will contribute a 5 percent budget increase for 2023. If approved, the increase would be the highest budget increase in terms of percentage in the past five fiscal years.
And even after those contributions, Suckow said the budget still has a $2.6 million deficit.
Town officials raised concerns about both the proposed increase in town contributions and the projected deficit.
Town Administrator Derek Sullivan said that by his reading, the initial request for a FY2023 budget would have represented a 13.58 percent increase, “really, when it comes down to it,” despite the fact that the district’s recent trend of actual budget increases have only been as high as a 4.8 percent increase in 2022 and a 3.14 percent increase in 2018.
“I’m getting really worried that this is a true structural deficit going forward of $3 million a year,” Sullivan said. “We have to nip that now. So, what’s the plan on that?”
He warned that operating with what he referred to as a “rolling deficit” would cause future problems for the district.
“If this is what we’re seeing, I’m guessing it’s going to be more than 5 cuts (to district employees) — it’s going to be a lot more,” Sullivan said.
Nonetheless, he said he appreciated district officials’ hard work thus far at whittling down the budget.
Finance Committee member Joey Smith and Select Board Chair Judith Whiteside requested a far more detailed breakdown of the district’s budget.
“The things I’m asking, I’ve done this with the town side last year,” Smith explained. “Breaking down some budget lines and things.”
He started by asking for a breakdown of the Wareham Elementary School principal and assistant principals’ salaries. Suckow said that she didn’t immediately have those numbers but could get them.
Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood said she and Suckow would be happy to sit down with officials and break down the budget line-by-line.
Whiteside described herself as a “line-item person” and said she had similar questions as Smith.
“The presentation that you gave here has a lot of holes in it that I would like the answers to,” she said.
School Committee member Apryl Rossi also raised concerns about the potential of a budget deficit and the need for drastic cuts.
“It really breaks my heart to even think that we might have to cut five more positions when there’s positions that are needed, because our kids need to be the number one,” Rossi said. “I understand that it’s hard to get blood from a stone.”
She said the district has had to “get creative” in terms of the budget in the past, and emphasized the importance of prioritizing the students and staff going forward.
“Numbers are numbers and I understand they’re very black and white,” Rossi said. “But an educational system in a town is not because the kids are real, and the teachers and the administrators and the support staff that put their all into everything deserve us to be creative because our kids are the ones who are going to suffer if we can’t figure this out.”