NEWBURYPORT — Faced with a projected budget deficit of $581,000 for 2013-14, School Committee members are searching for possible ways to mitigate the shortfall.

Food service costs and special education spending were the major areas of concern, discussed at a meeting last week. The committee discussed the possibility of raising school lunch prices by 25 cents, dropping out of the federal lunch program and discontinuing service with the district’s current food-service provider, Chartwells.

They also talked about the importance of providing a contingency fund to deal with unanticipated expenditures, especially in relation to special education.

Budget estimates include a total deficit of $761,000 for special education, due in large part to out-of-district costs. Also adding to the deficit was the purchase of an additional bus for $53,000 and an estimated food service deficit of $75,000.

The deficit figure totals out at $910,000. But anticipated revenues, which include school choice and circuit-breaker reimbursements totaling $329,000, lower that shortage to $581,000.

A spending freeze is also in place and may make up some of the deficit, but it may be minimal.

Committee member Steven Cole said the reimbursement amount could be higher, depending on what the reimbursement rate is in April. He also mentioned that the food service loss could potentially reach $130,000 by the time the end of the year rolls around because of a projected loss by Chartwells that would be added to the $75,000 amount.

“I think we should give serious consideration to making a bold change and dropping out of the federal (lunch) program. I’m not impressed with Chartwells anyway. We’re just two months into the school year and the deficit is already larger than we anticipated,” said School Committee member Audrey McCarthy. “Other districts are dropping out of the federal program. I’d like to find out what they’re doing in place of it.”

McCarthy also argued against raising lunch prices.

“I’ll tell you now, if it comes to that, I’ll vote against the 25-cent price increase,” she said. “If you’re not selling a product, you don’t raise the price.”

Committee member Bruce Menin and chairwoman and Mayor Donna Holaday added that raising the price may cause a decrease in school lunch participation.

Committee member Nick deKanter countered that the price increase is worth exploring.

“We need to look into all revenue possibilities and that’s one of them,” he said. “If we decided to do it, we would need to come up with a communication strategy that would give the public fair warning. And we need to ask what the costs would be to run our own food service program if we decided to change what we’re doing now.”

Cole acknowledged that strict federal dietary guidelines have contributed to the recent decrease in school lunch participation, but he said it was critical to find a way to balance the food-service budget and get out of the red.

“I think we should work on coming up with a plan by the new year, and work on getting more data between now and then. We also need to get feedback on this from Chartwells, and see what they might be able to do to assist us.”

In the area of special education, Superintendent Susan Viccaro stressed the importance of having a viable contingency fund in place to cover unanticipated but mandated costs, such as those common in special education, which currently accounts for 27 percent of the school district budget, she said.

According to budget figures, the district has had to hire additional instructional aides this year to address student needs, which has led to the district being overstaffed by 10 full-time employees compared to the original budget voted on last spring.

Pursuing overdue tuition payments was brought up as one means to collect needed revenue.

In other business:

Menin told the committee that he was contacted by a member of the community regarding the issue of the budget deficit. He said because he was not informed by members of the finance subcommittee about the budget numbers before last week, he could not adequately address the person’s concerns.

“I’m upset, I felt like an idiot. I think this does public damage to the school board’s credibility and it’s creating a real trust issue between us and the community,” he said. “We’ve had two School Committee meetings since the last finance meeting (in October). I don’t understand why this budget information wasn’t passed on to the other members of the board.”

Cole, who chairs the finance subcommittee, said there was no intent to keep information from anyone and that time was needed to review the figures.

“We needed ample time to review and get accurate figures. There was no intent to hold back anything,” he said.

“There’s a maelstrom out there in the community and rumors going around about budget problems. It’s important to make it clear to the public that this is a regularly scheduled meeting of the subcommittee and not an emergency meeting,” added vice chairwoman Cheryl Sweeney, who is also on the finance subcommittee.

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