Draft of school budget sees increase in utilities, special education costs

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Woodcock Administration Building

abass@northstarreporter.com

A proposed school budget for the new fiscal year could potentially lead to positions being cut to address an increase in utility and special education tuition costs.

During a School Budget Subcommittee meeting on Dec. 6, Superintendent Dr. John Antonucci told members that the recommended budget will be more expensive due to increases in utility costs and out-of-district tuition for special education.   The proposed budget is $46,980,202 in total—a 4.40% increase from the last fiscal year and will be presented to the School Committee on Dec. 14.

Antonucci told the subcommittee the increases in special education tuition and utilities were beyond his team’s control and caused by outside effects–namely the rise in oil prices throughout the year.

“Oil is used for our heating utilities,” Antonucci said.  “This is a seismic shift.”

The superintendent said the special education tuition budget rose by $475,882 throughout the last fiscal year due to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts approving a 14% tuition increase for private special education schools, such as private day and residential schools. The North Attleborough FY2024 budget is forecasting four new students that are to be placed in private schools.

“It’s an insane decision,” Antonucci said of the 14% increase. “It’s an insane decision that puts a burden on our schools.  However, it’s beyond our control.”

The combined cost of utilities and tuition total $651,785–almost half the total budget increase.  Without these two budget drivers, Antonucci said the budget increase would be 2.97%.

To help offset the costs, Antonucci has recommended reallocating funds from ESSER grants to be used instead to hire full-time positions for adjustment counselors and a school psychologist for the district.

ESSER, which stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, provides districts with emergency relief funds to address the impact that COVID-19 has had, and continues to have, on elementary and secondary schools. These funds were established under the CARES act passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by former President Donald J Trump in 2020.

Antonucci said the district is becoming less reliant on ESSER funding, which will disappear in Fiscal Year 2025. He argued the allocation of ESSER funding would help ease the pains of the cost increases to special education tuition.

Another suggestion made by Antonucci is to reduce the custodial substitute budget by $40,000 and fund a full-time custodian position instead.

“We need the bodies to clean the buildings,” he said. “We are currently relying on substitutes right now.”

While the subcommittee did not have any objections to the proposed budget, Antonucci stressed this was only a first draft.  He also said the draft would see decreases to a net 13.0 full-time equivalent positions.  He said he wants to make sure this budget does not lead to heavy cuts in employment to pay for the increase in tuition and utilities.

“I want to make sure that we aren’t cutting more jobs because we have to pay for heat,” he said. “This budget has moving parts to it and we’re still working on it before it has a final draft.”