Advisory Committee: $87 million for Brookline schools

A regular meeting of the Advisory Committee on Thursday, April 17, started at 7:00 pm in the southern first-floor meeting room at Town Hall. The committee has been reviewing articles on the warrant for the 2014 annual town meeting to be held in May. Most of this meeting was review of school spending proposed for the fiscal year starting next July. Attendance was slim, as it often is at Advisory meetings.

Despite a long siege of work, the committee seemed energetic. Subcommittee chair Leonard Weiss summarized the proposed budget through a set of comparison charts, showing in a general way how the financial resources are used. Unlike some of the reviews in past years, his comparisons did not include other school systems. They were distributed on paper. Copies were not offered to members of the public. Mr. Weiss cited risks in the proposed budget’s heavy reliance on grant funds and other one-time revenues.

School superintendent William Lupini gave more information to the Advisory Committee than he had provided a week earlier to the School Committee. However, the proposed school budget as distributed to the public on the school Web site remains vague–even less informative than the “program” approach the school department began to use in the early 1970s. From the public version of the budget, a reader will not be able to find out how many fifth-grade teachers there are at Pierce or Driscoll, how much is spent on supplies for High School science labs or almost any other practical item showing how the school department runs.

Lee Selwyn was the only committee member who noticed and spoke up. He commented to Dr. Lupini that the budget presentation was incremental, mostly showing changes from the current year. Momentarily the agile superintendent seemed caught off guard, but he recovered with a time-chart showing average spending per student–from the school year starting in 2004 to the one starting in 2012. Mr. Selwyn never got a direct response to his objection.

The per-student spending chart is actually part of the public version of the budget, on page 27. Total spending rose from about $14,000 per student per year for the school year starting in 2004 to about $17,000 for 2008, then leveled off. The chart compares Brookline with Newton and Lexington, showing for the last three years reported that school spending per student in those communities was about the same.

Dr. Lupini and his senior staff contended that controlling costs of special education had been the key to controlling total per-student spending. They did not present any charts or numbers. As described at the meeting, a major element has been “mainstreaming” more special-needs students who were being sent to services outside Brookline–bringing them into the town’s schools and providing extra staff to help.

The liveliest part of the review focused on a proposed “technology” initiative. Most of this involves more and newer computers available in classrooms. The department proposes to add about 600 hand-held computers next year and to begin replacing computers every four rather than every five years. Committee members were interested, but apparently no one did the math. There are about 7,000 students now. For each student to be able to work with a computer, the department would be buying at least 1,750 a year–not just 600.

Dr. Lupini and deputy superintendent Peter Rowe discussed with the committee a “budget addendum” much expanded from one previously distributed to the School Committee. Among other matters, it lists funds for the “technology” initiative. However, the addendum has not been made available on the school Web site, and paper copies made available to the public do not include a page explaining “budget magic” discussed with both the School Committee and the Advisory Committee–avoiding major program cuts or a tax override.

A large majority of the Advisory Committee voted to recommend the school budget as proposed, requiring about $87 million in local tax revenue for department operations, plus a capital allocation. Dividing the annual school department appropriation by the student population does not reflect full costs. A state agency reports per-student spending, including costs of health care and pensions. However, contrary to statements made at the meeting by school administrators, those state reports do not factor in the costs of school buildings. A few committee members abstained, but no one opposed the school budget.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, April 18, 2014

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