By Jim Sullivan
---- — AMESBURY — The public school system, the mayor’s office and legal services were the topic of the finance committee’s first budget public hearing last night and it was the school system that got the most attention.
Mayor Ken Gray released his budget of $53,863,035 to the city council Tuesday night, covering the next fiscal year which begins July 1. By law, the council can only decrease the mayor’s budget, not increase it. Last night’s public hearing was the first of eight that will be held by June 17.
District school spending is currently budgeted at $28,148,498. The state of Massachusetts has also assessed the city an additional $3.2 in education-related costs including School Choice, the Amesbury Academy Charter Public School, retired teachers, Essex Agricultural and Technical High School and the Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School which represents an increase of $78,255 over the previous budget.
Representing 58 percent of general government expenses, presentations were made to the finance committee last night from superintendent Michele Robinson, assistant superintendent Deirdre Farrell and school committee members Stanley Schwartz, Deb LaValley and Peter Hoyt.
At the moment, the middle school family consumer science program, tech ed in both the middle and high schools and a high school foreign language teacher position are not included in the budget, accounting for $285,542. They may be added again in the order they were listed if additional state and or local funding becomes available as the city’s budget process gets underway.
Robinson stated that the reduction of course offerings could result in larger class sizes at the elementary and high school level while the middle school might see a return of study halls.
Finance committee member Joe McMilleon showed concern about larger class sizes and their impact on learning as well as the unfunded mandates. Fellow finance committee member Jim Kelcourse voiced his concern over special education costs as well as out of district placements. Finance committee member Bob Lavoie had questions regarding trends in special education and if regionalization of special education might help.
“We may have to fund this at the state level rather than put it all on the (local) taxpayer,” Lavoie said.
The school committee unanimously voted the budget on April 1, which represents an $800,000 increase over the previous year’s appropriation and is consistent with the city’s historical school spending increases. Unfunded mandates from the state have continued to increase however and while the city’s Chapter 70 reimbursement from the state rose this year, the city still receives more than $1 million less that it did 15 years ago in which time the state education aid has declined from 54 percent of district spending to 31 percent.
“This is a serious problem that shows no signs of abating and that cries for a permanent solution at the state level,” Mayor Gray wrote in his budget summary letter.
Roughly 20 people took in the hearing with some carrying pre-printed signs advocating support of Amesbury schools bearing the logo of I Am Pro Amesbury, a local political action committee that supported former mayor Thatcher Kezer and some of the school committee members and councilors in the last election.
Mayor Gray said the budget proposal for his office is $195,862, which is down $7,820 from last year’s appropriation.
The legal services budget remained from last year at $100,300.