BY JENNIFER SOLIS
---- — WEST NEWBURY — The shortfall in a proposed budget for the schools next year is higher than first estimated, but Pentucket Superintendent Jeff Mulqueen says he is “very optimistic” about finding ways to bridge it.
During a public hearing on the budget Tuesday, Mulqueen announced that an anticipated $500,000 gap has grown to $631,484. Only two people attended the hearing at the high school. The superintendent attributed the sparse attendance to the fact that he and business manager Michael Bergeron had already made separate budget presentations in each of the three district towns in January. Groveland’s Joe D’Amore was the only school board member not present.
The increase is the result of a new student moving into the district who has special needs that require an out-of-district placement that costs $240,000 annually. Under state law, Pentucket is required to assume the cost for this placement as of July 1. The state will reimburse the district a small portion of these costs under its circuit breaker program, but Pentucket still must provide the funding up-front, Mulqueen said. The district plans to review other possible options for meeting the student’s needs with the family at some point in the future, he said.
Other adjustments to the budget include a slight increase in state aid that will bring $68,775 more to Pentucket; a $5,100 decrease due to adjustments in maintenance expenses; and $34,765 less because of duplications or corrections Bergeron discovered in the first draft.
Following an explanation on the changes in the budget from Mulqueen and Bergeron, Chris Wile of West Newbury said the only question he had was how to address the shortfall. “Ultimately we have to figure out how to close this deficit,” he said.
But Mulqueen felt positive about the district’s ability to resolve the shortfall. He noted that he received “fairly good news” at a recent meeting with the Insurance Advisory Council that a shift in employee plans to make health care costs more sustainable was likely. More information on that should be available after Feb. 25, he added.
“The employees have really come to the table to offer their support,” said Mulqueen.
Bergeron is seeking ways to bridge the gap by investigating more cost-efficient methods for providing food services to students.
Wile suggested asking the three district towns to provide police officers who are already scheduled to work to cover the detail for morning drop-off and afternoon pickup at the six district schools. Currently the district pays a separate bill for this service.
“They are already on duty anyway,” Wile said, noting that the schools could figure out an alternative plan for handling the traffic for the rare occasion when the officer might get an emergency call for somewhere else in town during that time period.
Bergeron hopes to have the school board vote to adopt the budget at its Feb. 26 meeting, but said it could take until the first week of March. His understanding is that according to the Pentucket Regional Agreement, the school board must adopt a budget at least 45 days before the annual town meetings, which are scheduled this year for April 29.