By James Niedzinski
---- — MANCHESTER — The Manchester Essex Regional School Committee has unanimously adopted a budget for the next fiscal year, with a $20,775,408 spending plan that includes a 4.6 percent — or $905,215 — increase above the current school year.
The proposed increase is down from initial budget presentations in December, when the committee was projecting a hike of 6 percent, or about $1.2 million, for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
The largest part of the budget increase, however, remains for salary increases for faculty and staff. The line item for those salaries is pegged at $13,943,424 — an increase of 9.5 percent, or $1,208,359, from the current year.
Committee Member Ann Harrison said the increase was expected, as Manchester Essex Teacher’s Association did not see a cost of living adjustment in 2012’s budget and the contract with the association was not ratified until after 2013’s budget was adopted.
“There was virtually no (cost of living agreement) increase for two years,” she said.
Aside from the salary increase, insurance and other benefits take up the largest portion of the budget at $3,853,492.
Avi Urbas, financial director for the district, said steps are already being taken to reduce spending for other post employment benefits.
“This district has agreed to fund 70 percent of those costs for new employees, reduced from previous years. In addition, a new policy will prohibit retirees from adding insurance coverage after retirement has commenced,” Urbas said.
One revenue line item surprised school officials; the level of state aid. Superintendent Pamela Beaudoin and Urbas said they did not expect Governor Deval Patrick’s Chapter 70 funding allocation numbers to be so high, with state aid currently pegged at $2,856,343, not the initially budgeted $2,562,774.
However, Urbas noted, the governor’s numbers are not final and must be approved by legislation.
“Typically the governor’s number is a high water mark,” he said.
Depending on the outcome of the state budget, investments in facilities may be added back into the budget and less reserve money would be used by the district, which would reduce assessments to both Manchester and Essex.
Under the initial budget proposal, Manchester taxpayers are scheduled to pay about $11,393,765, with Essex residents contributing $6,525,242.
Urbas noted a contributing factor in these widening gap numbers are enrollment levels, with Manchester having more enrolled students in the schools than Essex.
But Thomas Kehoe, a member of Manchester’s Board of Selectmen, noted that a school budget increase will affect other aspects of the towns’ budgeting plans as well.
“That’s going to prevent us from doing a lot of capital work we need to do,” Kehoe said. “It really causes us some serious problems in our budget,” he added, urging both Beaudoin and Urbas to keep the town informed about Chapter 70 funding and its possible effect on the contribution level.
A town meeting warrant article reflecting the school budget is expected to be filed in Manchester today, with Essex soon to follow. Officials said the budget may be amended before the final apportionment due date of March 1, but officials emphasized that the regional school budget will not drive either town toward a Proposition 2 1/2 override.
“We have no intention of an override,” Beaudoin wrote in an email to the Times. “(We) stated on multiple occasions that our budget will not be the cause of any override this year.”
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.