By Ann Needle
After weeks of often fiery debate, and a failed vote earlier in March, the Nashoba School Committee passed a proposed budget on Wednesday. Approval of the $52.6 million budget came in the third round of voting in front of a packed audience.
In the 7-2 approval, the two dissenting votes came from SC Reps. Lorraine Romasco of Bolton and Lynn Colletti of Stow. The package is a 4.21 percent increase over the 2014/15 numbers. The original package for 2015/16 called for a hike of more than 5 percent over this year.
According to rough estimates by Assistant Superintendent George King, Bolton’s assessment would increase to just under $12.9 million (up 3.13 percent over 2014/15,) Lancaster’s to about $11 million (+3.14 percent), and Stow’s to $15.7 million (+5.21 percent).
The budget passes if at least two of the three towns approves its assessments at Town Meetings in May.
Since Nashoba introduced the budget to the Committee on January 28, debate has centered on the +5 percent hike and the amount the District would take from its Excess & Deficiency account (“free cash”). The disagreement contributed to a rejection of the package on March 16.
However, that 4-2 vote was void because, with 3 SC members absent, the approval did not meet the 2/3 majority under state law.
E&D remained the crux of several arguments up to the final vote last Wednesday. In January, administrators initially proposed spending $1 million of its $2.2 million in free cash. Assistant Superintendent George King explained this was in line with recent years, when the District has spent about half of its E&D, then was able to replenish that in the coming year.
Meanwhile, town administrators urged Nashoba to use more cash to reduce what they viewed as a budget increase that would push tax levels to the point where some residents could even lose their homes. King protested that taking more from the E&D would make it tougher to replenish it.
Stow Rep. Maureen Busch agreed with King, but said she was resigned to taking more E&D this year. However, she remarked that this would mean “next year or the year after that, we’re going to be creating a deficit.”
“Basically, you’re raising next year’s money on this year’s taxes,” protested former Bolton Selectman David Lindsay Wednesday of the District’s spend-and-replenish cycle of free cash each year. “People should be able to keep their money until they need to. This isn’t going toward the kids getting an extra Spanish class.”
At this meeting, Superintendent Michael Wood introduced a list of almost $1 million in potential cuts to the proposed budget. This included trimming some existing class sections, reducing the size of some of the new teaching positions proposed, eking more savings out of District insurance, and postponing some scheduled maintenance.
The SC objected to any cuts or trimming of teachers, despite Wood’s assurance that anyone losing a job would be placed elsewhere in Nashoba. Lorraine Romasco countered Wood, “Ultimately, the people who move here, move here for the schools, and I can’t make recommendations that would tear that fabric apart.”
After tweaking this list to leave the teaching positions as is, and raising the amount of E&D to be used to $1.5 million, the package went on to fail two rounds of votes that had only slight changes between them. Then, with E&D spending hiked again, to $1.6 million, the package passed on the third vote.
In objecting to the final numbers, Romasco asserted that, with two Bolton classrooms already over the 24-student District limit, Nashoba should re-assess its teaching staff. She reporting receiving letters from four Bolton families regarding their decisions to school-choice out of town, “And I think it was probably the budget that spurred those decisions.”
Lynn Colletti maintained the District should postpone its scheduled Internet Technology improvements, and put more funds toward its stated priorities of shoring up SPED and creating more space at Nashoba Regional High School.
Minuteman Membership Questioned
Michael Wood suggested that the District consider whether to replace its vocational technical school, Minuteman High School, with a school closer to Nashoba’s three towns. Wood said he has found many students don’t choose the Lexington school because of the distance.
In his Superintendent’s Report, Wood also explained, “Some of these students opt to attend another vocational school, and if accepted, cause a financial burden to the towns. [Towns pay higher tuition if these students are not members of the vocational school’s “district”] It is also a concern to us that a number of students don’t choose to attend Minuteman, attend our high school, and struggle with courses that don’t align with their learning style or interests.” Also, more students opting for vocational ed may mean more room at a crowded NRHS, he added.
Wood suggested Tri-Town meetings may be a good place to debate the issue soon, given Minuteman currently is looking for members to approve a new regional agreement this year. The school also hopes to launch a renovation project that could cost its members more than $100 million in total.
Closer to Nashoba, Wood announced the fire sprinkler system at NRHS may need an overhaul. He said a recent inspection turned up a sprinkler head that does not drop below the ceiling. This would cause any water released to pool above the ceiling rather than project onto the fire.
Not knowing how many sprinkler heads were put in incorrectly, Wood reported, “We believe it was installed this way during the 2000-2002 renovation and was missed by the project manager, building inspector, and contractor’s construction manager at the time. We have checked with our attorney, and there is no recourse against our contractor or the Town of Bolton.” An outside consultant will assess how many sprinkler heads were installed this way, and any work should be done this summer, Wood said.