, Newburyport, MA

January 2, 2013

Proposed Pentucket budget up 3.5 percent to $35.9M

Superintendent aims to make district among the best

By Jennifer Solis

---- — WEST NEWBURY — “Pentucket no longer seeks to compete with other high performing local districts, but endeavors to rival the best in the world.”

So said Superintendent Jeff Mulqueen in a letter that opened his presentation on a proposed budget for the upcoming school year.

Mulqueen partnered with business manager Michael Bergeron to present the district’s budget booklet at the final meeting of the Pentucket Regional School Committee in 2012. The $35.9 million budget proposal — which includes a five-year business plan — represents a 3.5 percent increase over this year’s budget.

The school board kicks off it annual budget talks by holding meetings on the next four consecutive Tuesdays — Business, Finance and Operation subcommittee meetings held at the elementary schools in Groveland, West Newbury and Merrimac on Jan. 8, 15 and 22 and a business meeting at the high school on Jan. 29.

Mulqueen said his world-class vision becomes a reality when Pentucket is “the educational opportunity of choice for students, the employment opportunity of choice for outstanding educators and the investment opportunity of choice” for the three district towns.

But a likely $833,954 shortfall for next year means some tough choices for the school board this winter. Once again, major cost drivers for the budget fall in the areas of employee health insurance and special education services. State aid regularly underestimates these costs, leaving local communities to make up the difference.

The administration is hopeful that new legislation that allows districts to tap into the state’s Group Insurance Commission or purchase a “benchmark plan from the current provider” will provide some savings in health care costs.

Bergeron admits that his budget estimates are conservative. No new growth for the district towns is reflected in the proposal since that information is not yet available, but he is hopeful higher new growth revenues locally may mean the towns can afford to increase their assessments.

Pentucket spends $2,173 less per pupil — or $6.8 million less overall — than the state average. Since 2000, student enrollment has declined by 5.7 percent, but in the past five years Pentucket has cut its staff by 14 percent.

Revenues in the proposed budget are based on level-funded state aid and a 2.5 percent increase in operational assessments and capital expenses from the towns. With the state facing stagnant revenue streams and Gov. Deval Patrick proposing $17.5 million in spending cuts that will directly impact Pentucket, Bergeron is counting on no increase in state aid next year.

Since 2009, Pentucket’s state aid receipts have dropped by $964,250, a fact that is “pushing the burden of funding an appropriate and free education for all students onto the local taxpayer,” the administration acknowledged.

To compensate, the district has historically offered more school choice slots for additional funds. But relying on school choice as a major part of the district’s revenue stream is “both risky and unsustainable,” Mulqueen’s budget document states. This year the operating budget will assume over $200,000 in expenses due to a lack of revenue generated in the school choice account.

Despite these challenges, however, the administration is not looking for a tax override to make up the shortfall.

“To begin the process of creating a sustainable budget, the district cannot count on operational overrides, and must work within the revenue available,” the budget document states.

Mulqueen proposes repurposing existing resources and consolidating several administrative positions to both help address the financial gap while supporting his vision for a world-class education.

A savings of $350,000 is realized through restructuring that eliminates positions for the current assistant superintendent, principal at Sweetsir Elementary School in Merrimac and the out-of-district special education coordinator; reduces a secretarial position by .5 in the Central Office; reorganizes the district’s special education and the high school guidance departments and slashes Pentucket’s legal costs by 40 percent.

As part of his restructuring, the superintendent needs two new positions — a supervisor for academics and arts, who would support the district’s core programs during the school day and throughout the community; and a supervisor of supplemental and intensive services, to focus on key supplemental regular and special education programming.

Mulqueen has set three priorities to guide the school board’s budgetary decision-making around staffing, redistribution of resources and reductions in current programming.

His first goal is for every student to have an equal opportunity to reach his or her dreams. To this end he recommends maintaining low class sizes across the district; providing full-day preschool and kindergarten; and eliminating student fee structures for academic, arts and athletic activities.

Secondly, Mulqueen wants all academic, arts and athletic opportunities to be rigorous and relevant. He proposes accelerating learning K-12 with task-based experiences; designing instruction that helps students — including advanced students — take the “next steps in their learning”; integrating an electronic curriculum through the ‘Bring Your Own Device To School’ initiative; and improving the district’s grounds and facilities.

His third priority calls for “a future of choice for every student.” He proposes expanding and aligning K- 12 curriculum; expanding early college and career opportunities; and integrating 21st century skills.