The addition of more than $600,000 to the fiscal 2014 budget for the Gloucester public school system, while no doubt greeted with a sigh of relief from school officials, may also raise a number of red flags among many taxpayers.
Yet the increase heading into the new fiscal year is indeed justified, not merely to support level service funding, but because this is a transition year for the schools, given changes outside the district’s control.
After years of losing enrollment, Gloucester’s schools may well see an increase this year, even if a projected outflow through the state’s school-choice program continues. That’s because last January’s abrupt shutdown of the Gloucester Community Arts Charter School and the end of the line for St. Ann School holds the potential for bringing in as many as 100 additional students to Gloucester’s public school classrooms.
Whether those students actually choose the city schools remains to be seen, but Gloucester’s schools need a measure of flexibility this year to deal with enrollment fluctuation, and the budgeted staffing positions to be saved this time around can certainly be justified.
The addition of the school money, approved as part of the overall city budget Tuesday night, is also valid from another standpoint: It’s clear that the mayor’s overall budget as submitted to the City Council has been built with extremely conservative revenue estimates that once again seem destined to generate an excessive, year-end surplus revenue line item. And it is indeed better to more realistically project revenues based on actual revenues from the previous year and steer that money into city services than to pile up a free cash fund like the eyepopping $4.8 million carried over into this fiscal year from fiscal 2012.
That’s why the council’s Budget and Finance Committee, headed by Ward 1 Councilor Paul McGeary, can boost the revenue projections from the city’s share of the hotel and meals tax revenues and boost the anticipated figure to be raised through parking fees and fines.
Municipal budgeting is always an imprecise science. And it would be nice one of these days if, when the city’s free cash figure is announced, at least some slice of it could be applied toward reducing homeowners’ and businesses’ tax bills.
But plugging more of the legitimately projected revenue into city services – included desperately needed boosts for math instruction and other changes in our schools – is a sound investment, especially in fiscal 2014.