BY JENNIFER SOLIS
---- — WEST NEWBURY — Pentucket officials continued to make the case this week for a $35.9 million budget for the regional school district next year.
The proposed budget, in its current draft, represents a 2.5 percent increase over this year’s spending plan and now shows a $501,045 funding gap.
Superintendent Jeff Mulqueen and Business Manager Michael Bergeron led a Power Point presentation on the budget Tuesday night in the 1910 Town Office Building and then fielded questions from the 25 residents and town officials from Groveland, Merrimac and West Newbury in attendance.
A similar public presentation was previously made in Groveland; a third session is slated for Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Merrimac Public Library.
The School Committee will continue its budget deliberations on Tuesday, Jan. 29, at 6:30 p.m. at the high school.
In his presentation, Mulqueen, who took over as superintendent last summer, identified his three top priorities for the district, the first of which aims for students to receive “equal opportunity to reach their dreams.”
To achieve this, Mulqueen, in his new five-year business plan, seeks to gradually reduce or eliminate fees for transportation, musical instruction, athletics, kindergarten and parking in the next five budget cycles. He would stabilize class sizes to the “high teens to lower 20s” within seven years. An expanded early education program piloted at Sweetsir School in Merrimac next year would eventually extend to Groveland and West Newbury.
Mulqueen’s second priority — to see all academic, arts and athletic opportunities remain rigorous and relevant — means the creation of more accelerated learning opportunities, supplemented instruction, electronic curriculum and improved grounds and facilities.
He said one way to accelerate learning is by implementing a “task-based” curriculum initiative over the next few years that would see “students engaged with highly rigorous and relevant learning opportunities.”
Mulqueen defined “rigor” as the standards of curriculum and subjects and “relevance” as the application of those standards to real-life problem solving. He hopes to build on Pentucket’s already strong reputation as a state-wide leader in the application of 21st century skills.
His final priority seeks a “future of choice for every student.” He will focus on areas of concentration, allow students to explore early college and career possibilities and continue to foster 21st century skill development.
Of the total proposed budget, 57.9 percent is directed at instructional services, an increase of 3.4 percent over this year.
Insurance and retirement, up by 4 percent, makes up 17.6 percent of the overall budget.
Nursing, transportation and athletics, up by 5.6 percent, account for 6.1 percent. Debt retirement and services drop by 4.7 percent to comprise 5.6 percent of the budget. Operation and maintenance costs, which are rising 5.1 percent, represent 5 percent of the budget.
Tuition paid by Pentucket to other schools is rising 3.1 percent, and will represent 4.7 percent of the budget. Pentucket now sends 39 students to 18 schools outside the district. Next year’s cost factors in an additional out-of-district placement that school leaders are already anticipating.
Spending for central office, School Committee and legal fees is 3.1 percent of the budget, a 15 percent drop over this year. Under Mulqueen’s leadership, legal fees have fallen by as much as $8,000 per month.
The proposed budget assumes level funding in state aid and grant revenues. State aid accounts for more than one-third of the budget, so reductions in this area are shifting more of the burden for funding education to the local taxpayer, said Bergeron, who joined the district in September.
Next year’s spending plan will again depend on $400,000 from the district’s Excess and Deficiency account. But Bergeron called the account “an unstable revenue source” on which the district should not continue to rely.
The budget stays within the Proposition 21/2 levy limit for community contributions. While Mulqueen acknowledged that some school supporters are urging him to fight for higher funding for education, he said he does not believe the district should be seeking overrides annually to fund its operational budget. He said funding requests beyond what is allowed under Proposition 21/2 should be for larger-scale projects or emergencies only.
Mulqueen said he believes the Pentucket communities want to adequately fund the schools, but the district’s leaders first must establish trust through transparency in the budget process.
Parent Laurel Mackey worried a proposed plan to consolidate functions in the district’s special education and guidance departments would create too large of a position for one person to effectively handle. Mackay and fellow parent Joan Reynolds said the special education director and out-of-district placement post oversee a plethora of legal issues and meetings involving some of the district’s most vulnerable students. They encouraged Mulqueen to retain current SPED Director Jack Tiano, whom they feel has significantly improved Pentucket’s Special Education Department in recent years.
Mulqueen said he will be taking another look at the restructuring and carefully considering the qualifications of whomever is hired to fill the new position. “I don’t want anyone’s job not to be doable,” he said.
But he stressed that when it comes to the hard decisions needed to resolve the budget gap, “I am holding the classroom sacred.”