Members of the Weston Community,
This letter is in response to a letter the Finance Committee published in the Weston Town Crier’s February 9, 2017 edition and circulated electronically to Weston residents on February 27, 2017. The commentary was shared before the School Committee’s March 9, 2017 budget presentation to the Finance Committee. In its letter, the FinCom expressed some specific concerns about the school budget and made a number of explicit recommendations. This letter has generated many comments and concerns from residents and the School Committee feels obligated to address some of the points. In order to foster a better understanding of the issues and to encourage informed dialogue, we make some high level comments about the budget, we respond to specific recommendations made by FinCom, and we provide detail about the rigorous and highly transparent public meeting process that is employed to set the budget.
The School committee recognizes that after the March 9, 2017 meeting, seven of the nine Finance Committee members voted NOT to mail the letter to Weston residents. The Finance Committee minutes indicate, "that the current letter would need some updating due to new information received." Yet, the original letter is still available on the Town website. The School Committee would encourage FinCom to remove the letter until the necessary corrections have been made, as the misstatements seem to be generating confusion and concern among residents.
In response to the concerns expressed, these are a few points that we would like to make:
The school budget continues to grow, despite declining enrollment, but the rate of growth has been slowing and the proposed increase for Fiscal 2018 is less than 1.5%. These recent increases are being driven primarily by three main factors that are overwhelming the cost reductions:
1 - Contractual Compensation Obligations to Our Unionized Employees: In addition to the negotiated cost of living adjustments with our six collective bargaining units, our faculty unit (WEA) provides for employee salary increases through “steps” and “lanes” movement. Continued employment allows faculty members to move through the steps, one step each year. Professional development and continuing education allows faculty members to move lanes. Lane movement can happen in the middle or start of an academic year. Salary increases are associated with each step and lane movement. Accordingly, salary increases in the budget will invariably increase in excess of the negotiated cost of living adjustments (COLA) increase. Salary changes are the most significant drivers of the school budget.
School Committee members are personally involved with the collective bargaining with our six bargaining units, and the most recent agreements reflect a step-down in the rate of growth. While the School Committee and the Superintendent set the overall budget and allocate the full-time equivalent (FTEs), building principals are responsible for how these FTE reductions are implemented, subject to collective bargaining obligations around seniority.
2 – Special Education: Costs associated with Special Education continue to increase, especially in the areas of outplacement tuition and transportation. The costs for these two components of Special Education are outside the control of school districts. Outplacement costs are approved by the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, Operations Services Division (OSD), and with approval, can change mid-year. Although we participate in a large collaborative purchasing group for special education transportation, the limited number of vendors has caused significant increases in costs over the past five years. In addition, we are intentionally investing in new programs to insource more of our special education programming with the ultimate goal to reduce expensive outplacements and to keep students in our district.
3 – Inflation in the cost of post-employment benefits that the Town is contractually obligated to provide to former and current employees. The School Committee has no control over these costs in the short-to-medium term.
The members of the School Committee would also like to address the specific recommendations made by the Finance Committee.
1 – Administration: The concerns raised about spending on “administration” instead of “instruction” are misplaced and misleading. The FinCom letter states that only 250 of 450 FTE employees are faculty. This implies that only 55% of Weston Public School employees are teaching our students. The School Committee and the Administrative team have pushed back on this simplistic analysis multiple times and provided accurate, detailed information to the committee, yet the FinCom continues to publish this provocative statistic.
The School Committee calculates that over 68% of our employees are engaged in “direct service” with our students every day. More specifically, the Kindergarten Aides assigned to Kindergarten classrooms are not faculty members, yet they provide direct service to our students. The learning assistants providing academic support to students on individual education plans (IEPs) are directly supporting our students. Alleging that a non-faculty employee is part of administration is a misrepresentation. Additionally, Weston continues to directly employee many employees who support the operations of our schools. This is a School Committee decision, and one we believe is supported by our residents. If we were to decide to outsource our food service, custodial services, and transportation operations, like other districts do (which we are not considering at this time); our “direct service” percentage would be closer to 79%. School Committee believes that our decision to keep these services in-house is one that makes sense for our district. Although these operations do not provide direct educational services to our students, they should not be considered part of administrative overhead.
2 – Leadership Structure: The School Committee is appreciative of FinCom’s understanding of School Committee’s work on the district’s leadership structure. In fact, during the subcommittee meetings, the School Committee highlighted to the Finance Committee its work in assessing and negotiating a new leadership structure for the elementary and middle schools. This has been a multi-year process. The first step was to negotiate the change in the previous collective bargaining agreement. The next step was to assess our current model and to compare it to peer communities. This second step was done by a committee co-chaired by former Superintendent John Brackett and WEA President David Poras. The School Committee is waiting for a proposal with restructured leadership positions from the Administrative Team. Our new Superintendent, Dr. Midge Connolly, is making this a priority. The School Committee is committed to approving a structure in each building that will support excellent instructional leadership. Cost savings are an opportunity, but not the priority.
3 – Technology: The School Committee has been focused on our technology spending, and wants to ensure that teachers and principals are driving the requests for spending. The impact on curriculum is our most important priority. Weston has frequently been an early-adopter of technology, and we are fortunate to have many teachers who are eager to incorporate technology into their instructional models, but we need to be thoughtful about our use of resources here. The School Committee believes that improvements can be made in the way we are budgeting our technology resources, to ensure that teachers and principals feel invested in the expense structure.
4 – Buses: The FinCom letter suggests that decreased enrollment should result in a corresponding decrease in buses. The ridership data and comments from parents indicate otherwise. The School Committee regularly reviews ridership data with the Administration, and has received concerns from parents about overcrowding on certain bus routes, and the lengthy bus rides that some students experience. Our goal is to best allocate the transportation resources. We have asked Administration to consider using a different method in assigning bus routes in order to equitably assign students to routes, reduce route times of our longest routes, and increase on-time arrivals. The School Committee’s priority is to ensure the appropriate use of the transportation budget. Simply reducing buses in response to lower enrollment would result in longer routes and fewer on-time arrivals. Additionally, reducing buses and increasing the length of bus routes would likely result in more parents driving their children to school, adding congestion to our roadways during the morning commute.
5 – Enrollment Projections: In response to parental concerns, the School Committee has committed to more closely monitoring enrollment trends, especially during the summer move-in period. The committee is including a reserve for an elementary class section that can be released if enrollment is higher than expected, or returned to the taxpayers if enrollment is at or below expectations. In addition, in conjunction with the School Committee, the Administrative Team is reviewing a number of additional data sources to further improve the accuracy of enrollment projections.
6 – School Space: The FinCom letter asks whether the School Administration could be housed in “empty school space.” The School Committee responded to this question last year, and was clear in its response that the appropriate place for Administration is in the Case House. A separate work area for the Administrative Team is what is appropriate and necessary for the district. Additionally, the School Committee notes that the success of any of the proposed 40B housing projects could very quickly eliminate any “empty school space.”
7 – Future Planning: The FinCom letter focuses on two issues:
7a – potentially restructuring the Country and Woodland Elementary Schools so that one building houses pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten and First Grade, while the other houses the Second and Third Grades. As the FinCom knows, this topic has already been raised at multiple School Committee meetings, as this was the structure of the elementary buildings when one of our members attended both schools in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. There are multiple potential benefits to this structure, but any changes here will not be undertaken without extensive parental and staff involvement. Any decision regarding the possible restructuring of our elementary schools will be based on what is best for our students. The primary incentive will not be cost savings.
7b – changing the 8-day rotation at the High School and aligning the daily schedules between the Middle School and the High School. The School Committee acknowledges that this is an area to focus on, but notes that the recently formed sub-committee to evaluate school start times at the High School and Middle School will be evaluating these topics as part of its overall initiative. Any changes made will be in the best interests of our students.
For those interested in more detail, we want to take the opportunity to highlight additional information about the school budget and the budgeting process.
The School Budget consists of three distinct components, each with unique drivers:
1 – the operating budget, which is estimated at roughly $39mm for fiscal 2018.
2 – debt service, which is estimated at roughly $4.5mm for fiscal 2018.
3 – “overhead” costs, which are estimate at roughly $11.7mm for fiscal 2018. These costs include Health Insurance, Workers’ Compensation, Unemployment, Property & Casualty Insurance, Retirement and OPEB (other post-employment employee benefits). The major component of OPEB is retiree health costs. Note that teacher pensions are not an obligation of the Town, but teacher OPEB is an obligation for the Town.
The School budgeting process begins in October with generation of preliminary budget projections. From November through January, two members of the School Committee meet extensively with the School Administrative Team for a detailed review of the various facets of the budget, and to understand and address priorities. In January, a group of FinCom members hold multiple meetings with the two School Committee members and the School Administrative Team. The School Committee then holds two dedicated budget meetings in late January, where Principals and department heads are available to answer questions for the entire Committee. FinCom members are present at these meetings. Thereafter, the School Committee discusses the budget over the course of its regular meetings in February and early March. The full School Committee and Administrative Team present the proposed budget to the full Finance Committee in early March. Finally, the school budget is presented to the townspeople for approval at Town Meeting in May.
For those interested in reviewing these budget meetings in more detail, links to meeting minutes and Weston Media Center recordings can be found below.
Weston School Committee
Presentations, Minutes and video replays of the relevant school budget meetings from 2017:
A detailed summary of the school budget process can be found here:
Copies of all the relevant F2018 school budget documents can be found here, including the slides used for the presentation to the Finance Committee:
1 - Minutes from the 10/17/16 meeting when enrollment was discussed and preliminary budget discussions started can be found here:
Video from the 10/17/16 meeting can be found here, with the enrollment and budget discussion starting just before the 1 hour and 55 minute mark:
2 - Minutes for the 1/9 meeting when the budget was introduced can be found here:
Video from the 1/9 meeting can be found here, with the budget introduction starting just after the 1 hour and 55 minute mark (it was a long meeting):
3 - Minutes for the two dedicated budget meetings (on January 23rd and January 26th) can be found here:
Weston Media Center did not record these dedicated budget meetings this year, but we can make a request to do so going forward.
4 - Minutes from the 2/13 meeting when budget was discussed can be found here:
Video from the 2/13 meeting can be found here, with the budget discussion starting just after the 33-minute mark:
5 - Minutes from the 3/7 meeting when budget was discussed can be found here:
Video from the 3/7 meeting can be found here, with the budget discussion starting just after the 5-minute mark:
6 - Minutes from the 3/9 meeting with the Finance Committee can be found here:
A very helpful slide presentation from this meeting can be found here:
Video from the 3/9 meeting can be found here, with the school budget presentation and discussion starting just after the 55-minute mark:
7 - Minutes for the 3/20 meeting will be available once approved, which is expected to happen at our 4/10 meeting.
Video from the 3/20 meeting can be found here, with the budget discussion starting just before the 2 hour mark:
The Town Budget Hearing on 5/1 is another good opportunity to hear about the budget in detail.