Revised Budget Called ‘risky’
LOWELL -- Just over halfway through the fiscal year, the School Committee unanimously approved a new bottom line for this year’s budget, which administrators describe as a “starting place” for addressing the district’s $2.4 million deficit.
“We did close the gap,” said Billie Jo Turner, the interim assistant superintendent of finance. “We did so in ways we consider quite risky that we would not normally do.”
At $182.4 million, the revised budget is $754,000 more than the budget originally approved last spring.
In a 7-0 vote, the School Committee okayed the new bottom line, which Turner said was created by funding underfunded accounts, adjusting unavailable offsets, adding additional revenue, reviewing grants for funding and making cuts.
As the discussion of the budget pushed past 10 p.m. Wednesday night, the School Committee opted to review line item changes at the next School Committee meeting.
Among these line item proposals was the suggestion to cut $30,000 in funding for a search for a new Human Resources director. The School Committee approved the bottom line with the stipulation that Turner will submit a transfer proposal to place this funding back into the budget.
Turner briefly discussed the other line item changes to the budget during the meeting.
The proposal does not include any new layoffs, but about ten currently vacant positions will not be filled, including the assistant superintendent of student support services.
In September, the former principal of Morey Elementary School, Fred McOsker, accepted a short-term contract for the position, which expired at the end of 2018.
Acting Superintendent Jeannine Durkin, who served in that role before her most recent position, said she plans to head the department and work on student support services in addition to holding the top position in Lowell Public Schools.
“It’s going to be a challenge, so I’m letting you know that, but I’m going to have to try it,” she said.
Additionally, the district is cutting two weeks, with the potential for a third week, from this year’s tutoring schedule, according to Turner.
School Committee member Dominik Lay said he is concerned about the impact the unfilled position and reduced tutoring services will have on students.
“It’s not a great situation. I want to be really clear. It isn’t,” Durkin said. “But we’re trying to do the best we can to keep people in front of kids.”
School Committee member Jackie Doherty said the budget is “right at the bone,” but praised administrators for protecting positions that directly interact with students.
“I appreciate everything this administration has done to ... make sure we do as little as possible to impact those front line people who are working with our students every day,” she said.
Turner said the proposal does not include about $200,000 in unpaid bills from last fiscal year. The district plans to come before the City Council to request this funding.
Doherty pressed Mayor William Samaras on a request for $550,000 in funding from a technology grant, which administrators say was paid to the city, but never forwarded to the schools.
Samaras said, because these funds were paid to the city last year, the money, if provided, must be paid out of free cash, which is not yet available.
Though the proposed budget changes close the deficit, Durkin said the district has no buffers.
It also includes line items Turner described as risky, such as reducing substitute teacher accounts, which were overspent by $874,000 last year. Turner said the district has ordered that only essential positions are granted substitutes and is in the process of instituting guidelines to define this.
“I believe we already have a major issue with substitutes,” said School Committee member Robert Hoey Jr., who expressed reservations about this change.
For some expenses, like teacher stipends or the Knowledge Bowl program, funding sources have been shifted to grants, she said.
Further changes affect almost every area of the budget, including special education, photocopiers, school allocations, transportation and sick leave buyback.
Line items could see further adjustments throughout the fiscal year as projections change, according to Turner.
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