Leverett school budget expenses see price hikes

March 15, 2023 | Doc Pruyne

LEVERETT – Members of the Leverett School Committee, along with Caitlyn Sheridan, director of finance and operations for the Union 28 school district, met with the Selectboard to explain a proposed 4.42 percent increase in the levee contribution to the district by member towns. Members of Leverett’s Finance Committee had a few questions.

Page 1 of the budget summary presented at the meeting on March 7 showed the line item for maintenance and operational expenses jumped 21.79 percent. Sheridan explained the increase of $54,323.

“We’ve over-extended on fuel costs and school power, so we are just trying to raise those utility lines to meet the actual expenses we’ve had in previous years,” Sheridan said. “Plant operations maintenance went up 21.79 percent, which includes school telephones, school power, equipment maintenance, a lot of the building necessities.”

Still looking at page 1, Finance Committee (FinCom) members asked why the budget for the after school program ballooned from $1,400 to $5,000. Jess Richeleau, School Committee member, explained the program lapsed during the coronavirus pandemic. The enrichment program has been open again for a short time and still needs support.

“While the program is still getting ramped up, this is treating it as a pilot…so this is really only after half a year,” Richeleau said. “This is to accommodate some bumps in the road, and we’ll revisit it next time to see if that’s still appropriate.”

FinCom members asked whether the after school program ended last year with a $17,000 deficit. Cohen said the initiative lapsed in 2020. FinCom members also commented on the $10,000 increase in technology costs; but the discussion did not get sticky until mention of the school lunch program.

According to the discussion, the deficit in the lunch program line item was $36,000. That loss was not confirmed, but would usually be met with a transfer of funds.

“Transferring money from where?” asked Selectboard Chair Tom Hankinson.

“From the general ledger,” said Craig Cohen, School Committee chair. “The general fund.”

The next question from FinCom members, whether the district was supporting those programs with its budget money, suggested the strategy is less than ideal. Richeleau commented the program will meet further difficulties in the coming year because the program funding details may change.

The total levee contributions of $2,157,957, proposed for the towns for fiscal year 2024 (FY24), increased from the current year by $91,371. Grant revenues increased by $7,000, but were offset by a reduction in school choice income of $25,000. Cohen explained that while total school expenses have gone up 3.1 percent, the larger increase of 4.42 percent requested for FY24 is due to reductions in income.

School Committee members explained the district has reduced the dependence on school choice.

The school choice program allows incoming placement of students in low census classrooms, with each seat bringing $5,000 from the sending district to Union 28, without added expense. While a reliance on school choice income for operating expenses is not recommended by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), the specific rationale for reducing school choice openings by five seats was not clarified.

FinCom members also questioned the formula for dividing up the support necessary from each town. The formula has changed. A five-year rolling average of enrollments was instituted recently, and this year is dependent on average enrollments for only the last two years.

Erving has 193 enrolled students and will pay 25 percent of the total levee charged the member towns. Leverett will pay 27.47 percent, with 141 enrolled. Sheridan explained that adjustments to the calculation of rolling averages is made necessary by Erving’s tuition agreement with the Gill Montague school district.

The school representatives explained that under Erving’s tuition agreement with Gill Montague the town pays a set per pupil charge for the 87 middle and high school students attending the Gill Montague district. Each of those students was counted as .1 student for the purpose of parsing the levee charges among the towns. The mathematical justification for the .1 count was not made clear, but Richeleau explained those students receive little from Union 28.

“We don’t do a lot of the work for them,” Richeleau said, “so they only count for a tiny bit of the elementary student count…Although they have 193 students from pre-k through 12, only 106 we are programmatically responsible for.”

Shutesbury will pay 22.65 percent of the levee, with 124 students enrolled. New Salem/Wendell will chip in 24.88 percent of levee costs, while enrolling 131 students. The handout showed a total enrollment of 589 students, an increase of seven students from the current year.

Instructional expenses account for 77 percent of the budget.

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