Monday, April 15, 2024

The School Committee meets Dec. 20 in its new chambers at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, where it heard budget projections showing a $2.7 million shortfall in the next fiscal year. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge schools are projected to be in the red $2.7 million next year, which looks bad compared with where the district was a year ago — projecting a budget gap of only $600,000 that was later bridged — but good compared with two years ago, when administrators expected a shortfall of $3.7 million.

The estimates, presented to the School Committee by the district’s chief financial officer, Claire Spinner, come with the same qualifier as always: the district and City Manager Robert W. Healy will be working to ensure the gap in funding is again filled, possibly through more local and state money.

Two budget retreats are scheduled: one Jan. 24 focused on the district-restructuring Innovation Agenda; and another Jan. 31. They are scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. at the Pearl K. Wise Library, inside Cambridge Rindge & Latin School at 459 Broadway.

“We don’t have a lot of play” in closing the budget gap, Spinner said Dec. 20, because so many expenses are beyond administrators‘ control — out-of-district tuition, energy expenditures and transportation, for instance.

The total schools budget is projected to $140.7 million, Spinner said, with the shortfall resulting from the fact expenditures (81 percent of which are salaries and employee benefits) will be up $5.9 million, while revenue (83 percent of which is made up of property taxes, with state aid making up much of the rest) will be up only 2.3 percent, or $3.2 million, after taking out the district’s charter school assessment.

“We hope to get a better charter school assessment,” she said. “We hope the numbers will come down by several hundred thousand dollars.”

Superintendent Jeffrey Young, who said he has met already with the city manager and his staff on budget issues, was optimistic. “I have tremendous confidence we will be able to close the gap,” he told the committee in December, although “I don’t just expect him to wake up tomorrow and write a check to fill the gap.”

Next year’s projections include the $350,000 cost of the Innovation Agenda, which restructures the district to include four “upper schools,” including staffing at those new schools and the elementary schools from which they are being split off. (In March, the estimate was $585,000, Young noted.)

Only 22 students are expected to be added in the next school year, bringing enrollment to 6,330 — a 7.4 percent increase in the student body over the past five years, with Spinner projecting a 6 percent rise in the next five years.

The current level of services elsewhere stayed the same, although $3.7 million is to be spent in step increases and cost of living increases in salaries and wages and $2.3 million in health insurance and pension funding.

Looking ahead five years, with the forecast increasingly shaky toward the end, is simply grim, with the shortfall in two years fiscal years looking like $3.9 million; three years, $7.3 million; four years, $10.3 million; and five years, $13.4 million.

“This is going to be a challenging time,” said councillor David Maher, who was mayor at the time of the meeting.