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Worcester Schools’ Budget Not Meeting State Spending Requirements

Monday, May 06, 2013


Budgetary issues facing Worcester schools -- what needs to be done?

Last week, City Manager Michael O'Brien announced that that he will be recommending $297.3 million in funding for Worcester public schools as part of his 2014 municipal budget proposal -- $428,000 below the required spending level for the next fiscal year as required by the state's net school spending formula.

On Friday, School Superintendent Melinda Boone informed school committee members of the shortfall. GoLocal spoke with both Worcester School Committee member Donna Colorio, as well as Dr. Roberta Schaefer with The Worcester Regional Research Bureau, who both voiceed concerns regarding the budget scenario facing the School Committee -- and what needs to be done to address the shortfall.

"We have to make this work. Period."

Talking with GoLocalWorcester, Colorio offered her perspective on the budget situation that the School Committee is looking at currently -- and continues to face.

"The [education funding] formula is complicated," said Colorio. "We have a residential city, not a commuter city here in Worcester. A high proportion of our taxes has to go to municipal needs such as fire and safety, which I get. I understand the [city] Manager's constraints."

Colorio cited the increase in the number of students in Worcester, as well as transportation costs, as factors in the budget needs of the School Committee. "We have roughly 24,000 students in our public schools, 2400 in our charter schools," said Colorio. "When we see the State cutting back their reimbursement rate for charter school funding, that most certainly directly impacts our bottom line as well, and our ability to balance our budget."

Tackling the Shortfall

Colorio was adamant that the School Committee would be working as a whole towards continuing to address the budgetary gap.

"I think it needs to be said that as a Committee, we are all committed to working towards what's in the best interest of the kids," said Colorio. "While we certainly don't always see eye-to-eye, as evidenced by the number of 4-3 votes that we have, well, that goes to show you that we're working hard, and not just going along to get along, so to speak. Quite frankly, I'd be more concerned if we had blanket consensus."

Colorio said one of the goals she was working towards was having the School Committee approach the City Council with specific spending needs, rather than asking for a "lump sum" to fill budget gaps. 

"We've got specific structural needs facing our schools. Take the Midland Street School -- roofing repairs are desperately needed," said Colorio. "As a School Committee, it would behoove us to show targeted needs when we have to go the City Council. It's something that people can see, that they can point to."

"That being said, we need to allocate resources effectively on our side," said Colorio. "Of the total [schools] budget, we have discretionary spending of about 15%. So there's a lot outside of our control, but we do have some, and we need to work within that."

Colorio said that she would be willing to look at cutting administrative costs, in particular the suggest made by School Committee member Brian O'Connell to cut central administrative salaries that are over $100,000 in order to achieve $500,000 in cost savings.

"Looking at cuts needs to be done similarly to how we need to be asking for specific spending requests," said Coloro. "It needs to be targeted, and it can't be political."

Coloro expressed her continuing concerns surrounding the cost of implementing Common Core standards. "We're spending an inordinate amount of money adhering to these mandates, from revamping textbooks and technology, especially for data tracking, not to mention the administrative resources and staffing costs to oversee it all," said Colorio. "I'd rather see that money got back into the classrooms, for instructional assistants, tutors, additional teachers."

Colorio mentioned an upcoming forum taking place on Tuesday, May 28, at the Worcester Public Library, on the topic of Common Core Standards. "We'll have national experts coming in to shine a light on the issue," said Colorio, adding that ELA curriculum author Sandra Stotsky and "costs and accountability expert" Ted Rebarber would be on the panel, which will take place from 6:30 to 9 P.M.

School Spending Costs of Concern to The Research Bureau

Dr. Roberta Schaefer with The Worcester Regional Research Bureau said that school spending should be of major concern to city -- and perhaps the most important, from a budgetary standpoint.

"While we recently shed light on the issue of Worcester's OPEB liability and retiree healthcare costs, the fact remains that school spending takes up the largest percentage of the city's budget," said Schaefer. "Education spending has been steadily creeping upwards, whereas the city's ability to meet those levels clearly has not."

Schaefer noted legislation put forth by State Representative Peter Durant (R-Spencer), which would address limiting the revenue growth factor in determining contributions by municipalities for local schools and school districts, as one approach to tackling the spending issue.

"Clearly, the city's got municipal needs that have been, and continue to be compromised by increasing education costs," said Schaefer. "On the flip side, we do need to look at how police and fire money is being spent as well. It's a two-way street."

Schaefer gave high marks to City Manager Michael O'Brien for his management of the the city's fiscal needs. "He's doing a great job. He's always got eleven irons in the fire, he's been instrumental in the revitalization of downtown," said Schaefer.

"The city -- from the council, to the school committee, to voters, need to realize that the management of education spending needs to be a high priority, or else we'll see continued cuts to city services in order to balance the budget."


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