Nauset Officials Put Forth $32.9 Million Budget
By: Ryan Bray
Topics: Orleans news , Nauset Regional School District , budgets and finances
Officials in the four towns that make up the Nauset Public Schools asked Superintendent Brooke Clenchy for an honest budget for the coming fiscal year.
They got what they asked for.
Faced with rising costs, staffing shortages and needs extending beyond the classroom, the Nauset Regional School Committee on March 9 unanimously approved a $32.9 million operating budget for fiscal 2024, an increase of 7.6 percent from the current fiscal year.
"We feel that what we've done is give an honest presentation...and I think this will meet the needs of our children," Clenchy told the committee during its public hearing on the proposed budget.
The hike is well above that requested by officials in the four district towns of Orleans, Eastham, Brewster and Wellfleet, who asked that any increase not exceed 3 percent from the current budget. But Clenchy said that that wasn't doable, not without eliminating between 20 and 25 positions across the district.
Part of the problem, Clenchy said, is that revenue sources that the district typically depend on to offset budgetary increases have been depleted.
"I think those days [of keeping budgets within a 3 percent increase] are kind of done unless something else comes from the state or the [federal government] or whatever, but that's certainly not here this year," she said.
A presentation given to the regional school committee showed a projected 6.6 percent increase in district expenses from just over $34 million this fiscal year to $36.3 million for FY24. The issues impacting the budget run the gamut from the COVID-19 pandemic to rising transportation, special education and technology costs.
Chris Easley, who chairs the regional school committee, said the pandemic, which for a time forced students and staff out of school and toward remote learning, has not only impacted learning, but led to a spike in behavioral and mental health issues among students.
"Deficits in learning and behavioral challenges brought on by the pandemic have made this job of developing well-adjusted students much harder to accomplish," he said.
The budget includes funding for an additional assistant principal at Nauset Regional Middle School and an adjustment counselor at Nauset High to address behavioral and mental health issues. It also includes money to contract with agencies including Gosnold and Care Solace, increased behavioral health services and staff training for behavioral health intervention and support.
The district used Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding to help upgrade outdated software and hardwareacross the district. The need for reliable technology has grown since the pandemic, district officials noted in the presentation.
Transportation costs are also up $169,500 from the current fiscal year, while the district is also contending with a shortage of drivers that has caused some routes to be consolidated. The Cape Cod Collaborative, which manages transportation for Nauset, is offering higher pay and sign-on bonuses to new drivers. But Clenchy said fewer people are interested in signing up for the job in today's market.
The budget also accounts for rising costs for employee benefits and contractual obligations, both of which have risen beyond 2.5 percent from the current fiscal year. Utilities are also up significantly, as is the cost of special education tuition ($230,173) and transportation ($55,47) and that of School Choice and charter school tuition ($459,458).
To go with the higher costs, the district is only looking at minimal gains in state aid (2 percent) and charter school aid (5 percent). The district is also in the midst of a district wide staffing shortage, with Easley noting that approximately 70 employees across the district left the school system last year.
Easley said all of the above has amounted to a "budgeting nightmare" as the district prepares for the coming fiscal year. But committee members defended the budget as an honest evaluation of the district's needs moving forward, with Easley calling the budget "an investment in people, programs and services that will impact the behavior and mental health and learning loss of our students."
"It does the job," he said. "It does what we're supposed to do, and that is to continue quality education in our system."
Judith Schumacher praised Clenchy, District Finance Director Giovanna Venditti and other Nauset officials for preparing a budget that gives "a sense of what this district really needs."
"This may be the only budget in my six years that's gone over the 2.5 percent, but it's the budget I feel best about," she said.
With the regional committee's vote last week, members will begin the process of presenting the regional budget to each of the district towns.
The committee was due to meet with the Orleans Select Board March 15 to discuss the budget, which could call for an estimated $200,000 override to cover the town's portion of the cost.
Orleans Select Board member Kevin Galligan urged the committee to be fully transparent in presenting the budget to voters and officials in the district towns, noting that budget materials are not available publicly on the district's website.
"Whatever your news is, if you've challenges or if you've got great news, put it out there for people to be informed, learn about it and ask questions," he said.
As for the near 8 percent budget increase, Galligan said while he's "sensitive" to the issues facing Nauset and other school districts, the increase puts the onus on school administrators to ensure that every dollar is well spent. That includes getting creative in how the district might be able to save money in the future. At the elect board's March 9 meeting, he suggested the district might be able to move its administrative operations to the new high school and lease the existing building on Eldredge Park Way.
"If we are on this trajectory, we better scrub every rock and stone to be sure we are doing everything we can to be economical," he said.
Email Ryan Bray at email@example.com