On Tuesday, the Lexington School Committee held the first of two public hearings about the Fiscal Year 2024 LPS recommended budget put forward by Superintendent Julie Hackett.
This year, rapidly increasing student needs have contributed to an unusually challenging budgeting process. “It’s not raining, it’s pouring,” Hackett wrote in her budget message emphasizing the importance of adequate funding to address these needs. “The budgetary pressures are overwhelming” with the district working to provide resources for a large influx of special education students while supporting students making up ground lost during the pandemic.
LPS typically has a population of about 100 high-needs students, or students who require one-on-one or medical support. This year the district has upward of 130 such students, Hackett said in an interview. LPS enrollment this year has exceeded projections, both in total and for high-needs students. As of Oct. 1, 2022, 53 new students have moved into the district, with 15 of those students requiring one-on-one staffing, according to last week’s budget presentation to the School Committee. As a result, the district has already added more than 30 full-time equivalents in the past few months, with the great majority of these devoted to special education. Those positions will carry over into the FY24 budget.
“I definitely think it’s related to the pandemic,” Hackett said of the influx, which includes some students who have not experienced formal schooling. “We’ve always had move-ins, but we’ve not always had move-ins with such high needs.”
To address these and other student needs, Hackett has proposed an FY24 LPS budget of $133,589,832, which is a 4.16% increase from the FY23 budget. But at the Town’s third budget summit in November – part of a collaborative process to refine both school and municipal budget recommendations ahead of Annual Town Meeting – Assistant Town Manager for Finance Carolyn Kosnoff presented a preliminary allocation based on available revenue amounting to a 3.6% increase, leaving a roughly $710,000 shortfall between the requested FY24 LPS budget and the funding allocated. Money appears to be fairly tight across the board for FY24: On the municipal side, the Town is also facing a shortfall between its requested budget and preliminary allocation.
To address the shortfall in the LPS budget, Hackett has proposed placing funds remaining from a previous fiscal year into the LPS Special Education Stabilization Fund, which she said could be reorganized to make the funds easier to access. Due to an influx of pandemic relief funds, the school district did not spend all of the “circuit breaker” funds (state funds that help defray the cost of special education) allocated for Fiscal Year 2022, leaving the Town with about $2.6 million turned back by the school district. Hackett has proposed depositing $1.3 million of these unspent circuit breaker funds into the Special Education Stabilization Fund, which would give LPS a cushion to withdraw the approximate $710,000 needed to cover the budget shortfall and support the new influx of special education students. The other $1.3 million would revert to free cash, or unrestricted funds available for appropriation.
The Town has developed a long-term fiscal strategy of phasing out the use of free cash in the operating budget so it can allocate as much funding as possible toward capital projects, as previously reported. With this strategy, the Town especially hopes to minimize the burden on taxpayers of the anticipated new or renovated high school, which is projected to cost $400 million (the Town also hopes to receive a roughly 25% reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority).
“As we pursue funding for a new high school, the need for additional resources is an inconvenient but unavoidable truth,” Hackett wrote in her budget message.
Hackett outlined her proposal to address the FY24 proposed budget shortfall in a memo to Kosnoff and Town Manager Jim Malloy on Monday. Negotiations between municipal and school leaders on how to address the shortfall remain ongoing. Municipal and school authorities will meet for the next budget summit to finalize the proposed school and Town budget next Thursday, Jan. 19 at 7 p.m.
During last week’s School Committee meeting, member Larry Freeman stressed that the students at stake should not be lost within the dense budget figures. “We’re talking about our most vulnerable students we have in our district,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to make sure that as we look at these numbers…when we start thinking about 3.6 versus 4.1, there are children’s lives associated with these numbers and what kind of impact we provide on their future.”
At Tuesday’s public hearing, Lexington Education Association President Avon Lewis criticized the proposed budget, saying “this budget you have, while it is a step in the right direction, does not go far enough.” She added that the Town should prioritize some of the funding being saved to help pay for a new high school to hire more counselors, train staff to address student trauma, lower student loads at the secondary level, increase special education support and hire more “interventionists” to support any students who fell behind due to the pandemic in reading, math or behavior.
“We do need a new high school, but that should not come at the expense of the students we have now,” Lewis said.
In multiple School Committee meetings over the past couple of months, educators have advocated for additional resources and support, with high school educators in some departments speaking in support of decreasing student loads to 100 students and four classes from 125 students and five classes. On the high school front alone, “the challenge is that in order to do that, it would take an additional 30-something full-time equivalents to fix the problem,” Hackett said. “The demand is enormous, and the budget is what it is.”
Lewis also questioned the district’s plan to develop an elementary world language program using pandemic relief funding, calling it unnecessary and “a distraction from the real issues.”
Hackett said that the use of pandemic ESSER funds to reestablish an elementary world language program is “not what we’re talking about with this budget.” A key goal of the program, she said, is to get young students “from four and a half days a week of school to five days a week of school,” removing elementary half-days. Getting all elementary students in school for an extra half-day, she said, would best serve the socio-emotional learning needs of a wide swathe of the student population given that some students are coming to educators “two and three years behind in terms of their ability to focus and attend to lessons.” While a portion of the approximately $1.2 million in ESSER funds will go toward hiring about six to seven world language teachers, funding would also go toward paying other student support staff to keep schools open the additional half-day.
Running elementary world language classes, among other things, will “protect the collaborative time of teachers,” she added, by allowing educators to continue having the meetings and planning time that currently take place on Friday afternoons while students are in elementary world language specials.
On the other hand, using the ESSER funding to contribute toward backfilling recently added special education positions, or to cover the $710,000 shortfall, in Hackett’s view, would not do enough to support the pandemic-related needs of the full student population beyond students with special needs.
“What we’re trying to do is strike a balance between what kids need, of course, what staff need, what parents need, and address learning loss with an increase in in-person learning for kids who have just gone through a lot through the pandemic,” Hackett said.
The Lexington School Committee will hold a hybrid second public hearing about the proposed budget Jan. 24 at 6 p.m.