Schools’ deficit shrinks, but so do ways to save
Cambridge schools will be short only $600,000 in the coming fiscal year, according to a five-year financial forecast given Tuesday by the district’s chief financial officer, Claire Spinner.
The projected budget is $141.1 million, a 2.6 percent rise from the current year.
When Spinner gave a similar presentation a year ago, looking at the current fiscal year, the gap between revenue and expenses was much bigger: $3.7 million.
“We are in a relatively good position compared to last year and other school districts,” Spinner told the School Committee at its regular meeting in City Hall, crediting support from the city — and specifically City Manager Robert W. Healy — as well as steps toward restructuring taken last year (including a move to lease all school buses, instead of owning half the fleet) and the fact that union contracts gave district workers no cost of living increases this year.
The projected 3.1 percent rise in expenditures already assumes a fairly massive savings from the retiring of debt — $609,000 retired, leaving only $623,000.
Since 78 percent of the budget is salaries and benefits; 8 percent is out-of-district tuition; 4 percent goes to student transportation; another 4 percent goes to utilities, fuel and facilities maintenance; and only 6 percent of the budget goes to all other expenses, “that really explains why it can be difficult for us, when we need to, to find easy places to make reductions. Most of these things we don’t have a lot of ability to make reductions in,” Spinner said.
Cuts all around
The budget takes into account “that there may be further reductions to city state aid,” she said, considering the state has “serious and significant budget issues for FY12 … we’ve heard a potential 5 percent to 10 percent reductions is coming in state aid to local governments,” likely including less of the education aid labeled as Chapter 70 funds. Federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money disbursed by the state in the past to make up for losses ends Aug. 31. Special education reimbursement, called Circuit Breaker funds, is expected to stay at a 38 percent rate. The state used to reimburse at a 72 percent rate.
The district may slip further into the red in coming years. Spinner sees the budget shortfall reaching $2.1 million two fiscal years in the future and to as much as $10.3 in the 2016 fiscal year, although of course district officials said they would take steps to prevent that.
“We will have to review all our expenditures and make some reductions,” Spinner said in answer to committee member Richard Harding asking the obvious about just the next fiscal year: What can be done?
“We’re not just trying to say ‘What’s the easiest and fastest and quickest $600,000 we can cut’ and wash our hands of it,” Superintendent Jeffrey Young assured the committee. “We really want to continue along the guidelines and systemwide goals you’ve given us.”
The future district
The committee has three teams working on a broad reimagining of the district that includes a possible restructuring of grades and changes to the schools, including renovating four of the campuses over the next decade. The plan hasn’t been advertised as a way to find budget savings, although examining district real estate could result in some in the long run. (Reports from the teams should be posted on the district website within a couple of days, Young said.)
Little can be done about the health benefits of employees, though, which Spinner said could soon account for 20 percent of district budgets, rising from the current 13 percent.
Enrollment controls staffing, and another 160 pupils are expected to enter the system next fiscal year, an increase of 146 percent from this year’s 65 added students.
Looking at births in Cambridge and assuming those kids will enter the district five years later, there could be 6,745 students in 2016, up nearly 9 percent from current enrollment. The only upcoming year expected to see a decrease is fiscal year 2014.
Property taxes paid by Cambridge residents make up 83 percent of the district’s money, and the schools are projected to get $118.2 million in combined property and local taxes. Chapter 70 money, general state aid and Medicaid reimbursements add $22 million. Debt stabilization and other miscellaneous funds contribute about $800,00.
“We’re working very closely with the city manager and his staff on financial projections in what clearly is for the state as well as every community and school system in Massachusetts the year that people felt the budget was going to fall off a cliff,” Young said. “Cambridge is in a much more favorable position that certainly any community that I know of, and probably it’s safe to say virtually any community in Massachusetts right now.”
Young credited Healy, once a teacher, as a city manager who “gets schools and values education, as well as his creativity around financial planning. It has really been a pleasure for me and our financial staff to work with the manager and his staff.”