Even before it's finalized, the fiscal 2020 Monomoy Regional School District budget is projected to run a deficit of nearly $1 million.
Superintendent of Schools Scott Carpenter told the school committee last week that the preliminary budget is up 5.25 percent over this year's $39 million spending plan, but because of several factors, the assessments to Chatham and Harwich will increase by 6.09 percent. The increase will impact Chatham and Harwich differently; Carpenter said Harwich alone could see an increase of $767,000 above the 3.25 percent growth Town Administrator Christopher Clark said back in September that he was budgeting for the district.
“This will be the most challenging budget year we've had in the six years I've been here,” he told committee members Dec. 13.
A number of factors are driving the budget increase, Carpenter said.
Last year, the budget was supported by $705,000 from the district's excess and deficiencies account, akin to the town's reserve fund. The proposed budget relies on significantly less from that source, about $550,000.
A “very significant” uptick in our of district special education placements are anticipated for the next school year, which will pose a budget challenge, Carpenter said.
A 10 percent increase is built into the budget for a new bus contract. However, no firms bid on the contract, and the district will be working with the Cape Cod Collaborative to develop a transportation plan. Carpenter said he hopes the costs of that plan can remain within that 10 percent increase. The school committee is scheduled to meet with Collaborative officials on Jan. 10.
The budget includes a 10 percent increase in health insurance costs. The actual number won't be known until late January or early February, Carpenter said. Health insurance rates went up 6 percent last year.
A number of grants are ending and officials must decide whether to keep the programs and pay for them through the regular budget.
While the budget keeps staff level at the equivalent of 340.8 full-time employees, a number of positions will shift toward higher-paying support roles such as school psychologists and special education teachers. There will be the same number of employees, but the salaries will be higher, Carpenter said.
Because the district's teachers are working without a contract, salary levels remain uncertain.
“There's a number of different things that build up to one of those proverbial 'perfect storms' of budget season,” Carpenter said. He's asked principals and the district's central office team to be ready to meet Jan. 4, after the holiday break, to “really roll up our sleeves and prioritize what our needs are.”
Time is of the essence. The draft budget is scheduled to be presented to the school committee at its Jan. 10 meeting, and the document must be printed and released to the public the following Tuesday, Jan. 15, Carpenter said.
“It's all coming quite quickly,” he said. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Feb. 14 at 6 p.m.
While the overall preliminary budget increase is 5.25 percent – about $2 million – the actual bills to the towns will be higher, closer to 6.09 percent, because of the loss of grants and the small amount coming from the district's excess and deficiencies account, Carpenter said. Exactly how that will impact the towns won't be known until the state sets the required minimum contribution, which is based on a three-year rolling average of enrollment. This year that breaks down to 73.25 percent for Harwich and 26.75 percent for Chatham. Those assessments fund about 87 percent of the budget, with Chatham paying 23 percent and Harwich 64 percent of the current budget; the remaining funding comes from school choice tuition, transportation aid and Chapter 70 state aid. The total state aid won't be known until after the budget is published, Carpenter said.
While he said he understands that Harwich's 3.25 percent increase threshold represents the “wherewithal” the community can shoulder, the district has “some pretty profound needs above and beyond that number that we need to make sure get addressed,” he said.