GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 18, 2013

Council adds $600K for schools

City budget set to be OK'd at special hearing tonight

By Marjorie Nesin
Staff Writer

---- — A $600,000 increase in the school budget — City Council’s only change to the mayor’s proposed budget — will allow the school district to retain five or six employees who would have been laid off due to the creation of level-funded budget.

The influx of cash may also allow the schools to hire some math teachers.

City Council is slated to vote on approving the amended budget tonight, with the council’s Budget and Finance Sub-Committee having held numerous meetings reviewing each aspect of the mayor’s proposed budget since May 7.

The additional $600,000 allotted to the schools in the amended budget will boost the schools’ budget to $1.6 million, and change the schools’ tune from deciding who might be laid off to considering which new positions might be incorporated.

“Our most vulnerable cut would have involved possibly staffing, to the tune of $251,828 (in salaries). We’re now able to prevent that from happening,” School Superintendent Richard Safier said Monday.

While $700,000 less than School Department’s original $2.3 million request, school administrators are grateful for the extra allotment.

“I’m not looking to try to have our entire wish list granted,” Safier said. “We remain extremely appreciative of what the city has done for the school fund.”

The $248,000 remaining of the $600,000 allotment once all teachers contracts are fulfilled could go pay the salary of a sorely needed district information technology technician. The district now employs one technician who works on about 433 computers, while the state’s Department of Education recommends one technician for every 100 computers.

The School Committee is also strongly considering educator positions, mostly based around math, with options including a math coach for the elementary schools, an MCAS intervention teacher for O’Maley, and a district math coordinator.

“We’re going to be sitting down this week to try to finalize what would be our priorities and what we can afford,” Safier said.

The $600,000 allotment was drawn from about $350,000 in the city’s “free cash” account — surplus money from the previous fiscal year’s budget — and through a $250,000 reduction in the treasurer’s budget, in order to keep a balanced budget, according to Councilor Paul McGeary, chairman of the council’s Budget and Finance Sub-Committee.

The money moved from the treasurer’s budget would have been used to pay off long-term debt interest and to make principal payments.

“In the past, that has been the kind of ready reserve that is often used to meet last-minute expenses,” McGeary said. “We’re budgeting more tightly than we have in the past.”

While the city initially planned to boost the predicted revenues from the local hotel and meal tax, and beach and parking fees by a total of $127,000 to balance the budget, funding news from the state prevented that option.

The same week that city administrators and the council agreed to raise the predicted revenues by $127,000, the state announced a $127,018 decrease in state aid to Gloucester. So, the sub-committee, under McGeary’s lead, increased expected hotel and meals tax revenues by $25,000 each, and increased the expected revenue from parking fines and forfeitures by $28,000.

With those changes, the city balanced the drop that the decreased state funding momentarily caused.

Still, those projected revenue increases create a “tight” budget, McGeary said. He expects a new influx of “free cash” from the state for allotments to various departments mid-fiscal year, but said the city probably will have to create a more conservative budget next fiscal year.

Even after the $350,000 “free cash” allocation to the schools budget, the city will hang onto $950,000 in its rainy day fund. Reaching into the “free cash” fund though, McGeary said, will not happen every year to pay school bills, but a particularly strained budget with a suddenly expected influx of students from closed schools made it necessary.

“This year we decided we’d tap into it in the interest of the schools ... because the schools faced particular challenges this year, with the closing of the charter school and with the closure of St. Ann’s,” McGeary said.

Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3451, or mnesin@gloucestertimes.com.

If you go What: Special hearing on, and anticipated approval of the fiscal 2014 city budget. When: 7 to  11 tonight. Where: Kyrouz Auditorium, City Hall, 9 Dale Ave.