DRACUT -- Superintendent of Schools Steven Stone has presented the School Committee with a proposed 2014 level-service budget of $29,677,282, which contains a $217,000 increase, or 4.9 percent more than last year's budget.
The additional $217,000 is needed to hire seven kindergarten paraprofessionals, a secretary to process Medicaid claims, a part-time guidance counselor and half the salary of a new school-resource officer, with the other half to be funded by the Dracut Police Department, Stone said during two public budget presentations made on Feb. 7 and Feb. 11.
"The addition of the seven kindergarten support staff will ensure that each classroom has a full-time paraprofessional," Stone told the committee. "As you are aware, the average class size in kindergarten is 26, ranging from 24 to 29."
The largest line-item drivers of Stone's proposed level-service budget were: transportation; fixed-cost increases; technology; retirement buybacks ("It is anticipated 15 teachers will retire next year, " Stone said); mandated professional development; and contractual step- and negotiated increases.
"I believe the budget request for FY-14 is reasonable in light of the continuing recession and its impact at the local, state and federal levels," said Stone in concluding each presentation.
"The administrators, faculty, and staff have stood tall through the recent financial difficulties.
School Committee Chairman Michael McNamara said he was particularly concerned by a comparison page of Stone's budget report that showed in 2011, Dracut's per-pupil spending on "instructional materials, equipment and technology" was $104 per student, compared to the statewide average of $424.
"I wish we had the money for these needs that have been expressed tonight, I really do," McNamara said.
Using state Department of Education 2011 figures, Stone reported that Dracut also trailed in per-pupil spending in nine other categories, including operations and maintenance, professional development, classroom and specialist teachers, guidance counseling, and administrative costs. The one per-pupil category in which Dracut was above the statewide average was payments for the placement of students in out-of-district schools of $27,535 per student.
According to Stone, "Sixty percent of our graduates last year went on to four-year public or private colleges; so we are doing well with our graduates and we need to continue that work," he said.
As part of his recommended budget, Stone provided the School Committee with a long-term needs list showing what personnel and expense needs would have to be met to achieve the goal of having an adequately staffed and operational school district.
His long-range target list included hiring seven new full-time classroom teachers to meet the minimum NEASC accreditation level for a district of Dracut's size.
Other long-range needs of the district that Stone cited included hiring: five K-12 curriculum coordinators; five adjustment counselors (one for each school building); four guidance counselors at Lakeview Junior High and DHS; three vice-principals for each of the elementary schools; four foreign-language teachers; two security personnel, five more custodial staff to handle the expanded footprint of the renovated $60 million high school upon completion.
The district also has a growing need to significantly increase funding for maintenance of buildings and grounds, and for instructional materials and textbooks, Stone said.
However, Stone said considering the ongoing recession and looming threat of a March 1 congressional vote on sequestration, which could negatively impact Dracut's special-education funding, he is recommending that only a level-service budget be presented to the voters at Town Meeting in June.
School Committee member Matthew Sheehan asked board members and the public to support Stone's proposed budget, including the 4.9 percent increase.
"This is a levelly-serviced budget request. We're not asking for a 14-carat gold ring here," Sheehan said. "If we don't pass a level-service budget, we can just look at reality (that) we laid off 54 people last year."
Sheehan reminded the public of the School Committee's recent vote to close the Parker Avenue Elementary School and to enter talks about the possible sale of the district's main office building on the corner of Mammoth and Lakeview Roads in order to reduce costs.
"In my opinion we are doing everything we possibly can to live within our means," Sheehan added. There has been some talk around town that we have this 'extravagant' budget, and that is just not the case at all...
"When everybody goes home, they need to tell five people, tell everybody, that they need to show up at Town Meeting, and all five of us can speak on Town Meeting floor to advocate for this budget."
Speaking about Stone's proposed 2014 budget at the Feb. 11 public hearing, Rich Cowan, the co-founder of Dracut Action for Education and parent of a 2-year-old he plans to send to Dracut Public Schools, suggested that residents may be even more generous about funding their local schools if presented with a choice of budgets at Town Meeting.
"You might consider (proposing) a 'ladder override,' which gives the voters two or three budget numbers -- funding levels A, B or C -- to choose from," Cowan told the School Committee and Stone. "If voters feel more generous, as I do, if they realize the benefits of a decently funded school system, you can offer them another level in order to make our school system better."
Cowan also noted that the rate of increase in the town portion of Dracut's annual operational budget has far exceeded the school district's rate of increase over the past six years.