Belmont Schools Deficit Hits Half-Million Dollars Due to Rising Enrollment, Special Ed Costs

Belmont School District Superintendent John Phelan said the ballooning budget deficit facing the district could be explained by rewording a statement made famous by Bill Clinton’s political advisor, James Carville.

But mindful of the cable audience watching at home, “I won’t say it on television,” said Phelan at the Belmont School Committee’s meeting held Tuesday, Jan. 20.

But it wasn’t hard to decipher what Phelan wanted to say:

“It’s the enrollment, stupid.”

The exploding number of new students – 317 in the past two years as of Oct. 1 – entering Belmont’s six public schools is not just straining the system’s physical assets with classrooms busting at the seems but now is disrupting its balance sheet. The district is struggling to handle a half-a-million dollar deficit in the first six months of its fiscal 2015 budget ending on Dec. 31, according to Anthony DiCologero, the district’s finance, business and operations director.

And there is every indication the red ink the district is wading in has not stopped rising.

Looking at a worksheet DiCologero presented to the committee, it’s easy to identify the single largest budget busting item as costs associated with special education – including tuitions, salaries and transportation – which is running behind the fiscal ’15 budget projections by nearly $1 million, at $945,000. While other line items have seen increases, special ed expenses are by far the budget’s most significant cost driver.

For Phelan, the growing budget imbalance is traced straight back to the skyrocketing student enrollment figures “that is front and center” the towering issue facing the district.

And while the number of children entering the system is rising, the percentage of students requiring mandated student support – subgroups including those not proficient in the English language and SpEd students – is outpacing that number, Phelan told the Belmontonian.

A year ago during the formation of the fiscal ’15 budget, the district forecasted between 81 to 85 SpEd students in Belmont. The current number is 95 students, many requiring a wide array of individualized teaching and learning assistance.

And those expenses are staggering; a look at one-line item, Special Ed tuitions, relays the expenditure pressures in front of the district. A certain number of Special Ed students are placed in an educational setting outside the Belmont and the other municipalities within the multi-town collaborative (LABBB) the district is a member. Those tuitions are a mandated cost the district is required to pay.

Due to the increase in Special Ed students now living in Belmont, a deficit of $125,000 at the end of September has risen to $384,000 in just the subsequent three months, a jump of $269,000 in unanticipated expenses.

Yet effectively predicting future special ed costs is like capturing smoke. School Committee member Laurie Graham said while the actual percentage of student’s needing some special education services have remained relatively level at 13 percent, the actual number has not just risen but is such a moving target that budget planners are making best guesses on how many students will require services.

DiCologero said the current level of students requiring services has been fluctuating on the high end of the estimates and could fall back in line with previous assumptions in the next years.

Nor is there any assurance the deficit has stabilized; in fact, Phelan said the district could see an additional five students requiring special education entering the system in the near future.

The impact of the exploding cost of special education expenses has placed the district “on the razor’s edge” where the shortfall could soon impact teaching, said Phelan.

“It is starting to hit the classroom a bit,” he said.

Phelan said he and DiCologero review every purchase order from teachers and administrators requesting material with the aim of only signing those requests that impact direct classroom instruction.

“We are saying ‘no’ to most $20 requests,” said Phelan.

The tightening will also force the district not to stockpile projections for the district’s interactive SMART Boards – which were brought into all classrooms by a multiyear initiative from the Foundation for Belmont Education – but rather order when they need replacing which could force some classrooms to be without this standard learning device during the wait. In addition, computers will likely be kept for seven years instead of being replaced in five along with other measures limiting technological purchases.

That diligence, along with, not filling sone teaching and staff positions, cost cutting, and other expense controls, has saved the district about $250,000 in the second quarter alone. If not for those efforts, the deficit would have been closer to three-quarters of a million dollars at the end of December.

Moving forward, Phelan and DiCologero said the district will continue with its belt-tightening, knowing that unexpected expenses – a colder than expected winter heating season or emergency repairs to buildings – and more students entering the system will not be offset by any cushion in the budget.

The effort to hold the line on funding is hampering Phelan’s ability to lessen the burden on teachers who have, in both the elementary schools and at the Chenery Middle School, been forced to teach to classrooms with nearly 30 students.

“I believe it is not acceptable to have 25 children in a first-grade classroom. That is the most important grade,” said Phelan, projecting to the 2015-16 school year when this level of students will likely occur.

Speaking to the Belmontonian, Phelan said restrictions on basic supplies and materials along with added requirements for new assessment evaluations and ever increasing student/teacher ratios, “has made the job of teaching much more pressurized and we are seeing that.”

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