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Superintendent Unveils $35.9M FY20 Budget With Soaring SPED Costs

Mar 13, 2019 02:11PM ● By Lisa Redmond

Superintendent of Schools Steven Stone

DRACUT – School Superintendent Steven Stone this week unveiled his $35.9 million “working” FY20 school budget, a $1.2 million or 3.48 percent increase over the current fiscal year’s budget.

The School Committee held a public hearing on Monday detailing the proposed FY20 propose school budget that includes no staffing increases but maintains the current programs and staff in the school district.

“We are very methodical, very thoughtful and tactical with staffing increases,’’ Stone told the School Committee. Even so, the district’s school budget “works right on the edge,’’ Stone said.

Stone stressed that his is a working budget that will likely undergo several revisions before it is voted on at Town Meeting in June.

The FY20 budget includes a 12 percent increase in transportation costs due to a new contract with North Reading Transportation. There is also an “extraordinary’’ number of unanticipated special education issue. Both budget busters are significant financial stressors on the budget.

Since mid-December, Dracut’s special education costs have increased by more than $500,000, dipping into the special education revolving account to help cover the cost. Earlier this month, the state notified the district that it will be financially responsible for two more special education students, who may require out-of-district services.

“This is a working draft and these numbers, especially for special education and (special education-related) transportation will change,’’ Stone said.

Stone explained that FY20 money the district receives for unanticipated special educations, the circuit breaker account, is being decreased by $129,000 plus the state determined the district is not eligible for $111,000 in total state reimbursements.

Stone stressed the need for the state Legislature to make urgent changes in the school state aid formula and put more money toward special education costs and unfunded mandates.

Recent statistics released by the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education lists Dracut’s 2017 per pupil spending at $12,206, which is below the state average of $15,991, according to state website.

That same website indicates that Dracut’s 2018 rate of graduation is 88.8 percent and dropout rate is 3.9 percent, while the 2017 graduation rate was 90.4 percent and drop out rate was 3.8 percent.

Stone noted that he is watching the number of Dracut students who are deciding to attend out-of-district schools via school choice or charter schools. The money follows the student, so Dracut pays the out-of-district tuition.

“It is starting to turn upside down,’’ Stone said, noting that more students are choosing schools out-of-district compared to those out-of-district students who are choosing to attend Dracut schools.

He also showed the percentage of children receiving free or reduced rate lunches have gradually increased from 9 percent in FY05 to 33.4 percent in FY19. Staffing totals have increased slightly from 426 in FY10 to the proposed $428 in FY 20.

The “chargebacks’’ or services and programs paid for by the schools but performed by the town, such as snow and ice removal and health insurance, is estimated in FY20 to cost $12.4 million compared to $12.19 million in FY19.

A question was raised about saving money by making the schools more energy efficient “The schools are not particularly energy efficient,’’ Stone said. “We know that.’

Although the school administration has applied for funding through the Massachusetts School Building Authority to repair or replace several schools in town, until that happens the administration is trying to find ways to regulate the heating and cooling of the schools.

In other business:

While filling out her son’s applications to high school and the vocational school, School Committee member Sabrina Heisey said she noticed that the vocational school’s application offered a non-binary option, a catch-category for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine. She asked if that same option could be offered within the Dracut schools.

Committee member Susan Koufogazos added that a number of school districts are not providing a non-binary option on forms. Stone said he would look into the issue and report back to the committee.

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