Town/RMS Look to Decrease Impact of Cuts

A revised budget presented by Superintendent Doug White and the RMS Budget Subcommittee to the Rochester  Board of Selectmen/Finance Committee on February 27 show some softening of the impact of cuts for next year’s budget at the elementary school.

Earlier this month, the preliminary budget laid out a reduction of four staff and six paraprofessionals; however savings identified by school and town officials may save some professional teaching positions in the upper grades. The reduction of teaching staff for grades four through six were expected to raise class sizes to as high as 28 to 29 in a classroom, according to Mr. White.

A collaborative effort between Mr. White and Town Administrator Richard LaCamera helped whittle down RMS’s FY 2013 budget, but cuts do remain extensive.

The school subcommittee had originally asked the town for an additional $437,000 to level service the budget – but they settled on $354,811 in cuts. The $437,000 derived from projected increases due to contractual raises, higher utility costs associated with the building renovation/expansion,  increased number of Bristol Aggie tuitions, and soaring special education costs.

After listing off areas where savings were identified, Mr. White said cutting any more “starts to impact more personnel,” he said, particularly in the higher grades.

Utility savings significantly helped bring down the cuts. “The building has expanded, and the [estimated costs] may have been inflated,“ Mr. White said, noting that the school would fill the oil tank less often and a new electricity agreement would reduce the cost from 10.8 cents per kilowatt hour to 6.8 cents per kilowatt hour.

Elimination of a bus, which would increase the length of the ride for some students from 45 minutes to about an hour, also yielded some savings. The bus contractor had agreed to revert to its FY 2011 rates. Both actions resulted in a savings of $55,715.

Despite the loosening of the budget, the cuts remain substantial, with the paraprofessionals and science lab position eliminated and the technology  position downgraded to .6 from full time. Mr. White said, though, that he is “optimistic” that the district may obtain a $500,000 technology grant that could help restore the tech position. The fate of that grant will be known in two or three weeks, he said.

The issue of whether Bristol Aggie Tuitions should be on a separate line item in the town budget – as opposed to being deducted only from the RMS budget – spurred some open debate between Town Administrator Richard LaCamera and school committee member Sharon Hartley. About $187,000 was reduced from RMS’s proposed FY 2013 budget to pay for 11 high school students to attend Bristol Aggie.

“It doesn’t make sense to cut teachers so we can send children to Bristol Aggie. It’s a town responsibility. It doesn’t make sense to take the money out of [RMS],” Ms. Hartley said.

Mr. LaCamera firmly opposed the idea, arguing that the town shoulders much of the education costs already by paying for the health insurance and unemployment worker compensation for ORR employees. “We’ve absorbed all of the costs for health insurance. And it has gone up 40 percent,” he said, noting that the town ploughs the school parking lot and paid for the increase in the property/liability insurance for the building addition – costs that all steam from outside the RMS budget.

“It’s a two-way street,”  Mr. LaCamera said.

The Finance Committee agreed to look at the impact on town-wide on departments if the tuition costs were distributed among them, but in a way not to completely redo all budgets.

But Mr. LaCamera stressed that the town departments can’t be squeezed further. “It’s a serious problem. We are at the point we can go nowhere anymore,” he said, commenting that education costs make up 67 percent of Rochester’s overall budget.

The committee rejected an idea floated by one finance committee member to explore School Choice, which would allow out-of-district students to attend RMS in exchange for $5,000 from the sending district. ORR Junior High and High School generates $340,000 in extra revenue through School Choice , according to the superintendent.

Mr. White said it could get complicated if students from the Tri-Town opted to attend schools in other parts of the district . Also, Tina Rood pointed out that School Choice could lift the class size to the point that the hiring of a new teacher would be required, defeating the purpose of bringing down costs.

Ms. Hartley took some time to thank town and school officials for working together on the budget.

“I’m appreciative of [Richard LaCamera] and [Doug White] working together. This represents a collaborative effort,” she said.

In other business discussed at the Rochester Selectmen Meeting:

• A new lockbox soon will be installed at the Town Hall to collect excise taxes (checks only) and census statements

• Mr. LaCamera said recent connectivity problems with the Verizon landline for town buildings has prompted the town to enter into new agreement with Comcast

• Mr. LaCamera suggested that the Select Board meet with the Park Commission due to its failure to approve invoices on a timely basis and hold consistent meetings.

By Laura Fedak Pedulli

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