School committee tackles budget with ‘a lot of priorities’

Members weigh longstanding obligation against unanticipated expenses.

Administrators at the high school discuss the possibility of reallocating funds to pay for OPEB debts. — Lucas Thors

Members of the MVRHS school committee faced a number of difficult budgetary decisions at the board’s meeting Monday, including whether to satisfy a longstanding financial obligation or cover a number of unanticipated expenditures.

The FY20 budget that was being reviewed contained “a lot of priorities,” according to finance manager Mark Friedman. Among these priorities was the Other Postemployment Benefits (OPEB) liability, which Friedman described as a trust fund that pays for health insurance and any other expenses related to retiree benefits. “This is something that every municipality has to deal with. Every year, there is a certain amount of money the school needs to put into the fund,” Friedman said.

Since the school is not contractually obligated to reach a certain level of funding for the OPEB, Friedman suggested pausing the originally agreed-upon three-year plan in which the district is projected to reach the normal cost level (liability stops growing), and stretch it to a four- or five-year plan.

With multiple unexpected expenses like an increase in residential care tuitions, and the need for new English as a second language (ESL) teachers and support positions, Friedman said the $350,000 line item set for the OPEB contribution in FY20 may have to be reallocated to meet those needs. The school’s OPEB liability level is currently over $32 million, and to reach the annual required contribution (ARC), the school would need to put approximately $350,000 of additional moneys into the fund. At this level, the school would be paying down principal and interest, which Friedman said would be paid down within 20 to 25 years. The question for Friedman and members of the committee was whether to satisfy the contribution for the OPEB liability, or withdraw funds from that line item to cover multiple unforeseen costs. Friedman said there is already $1.4 million in OPEB funding in the FY20 budget, but “it still needs to go higher” for significant progress to be made.

Committee member Amy Tierney said that since the school has been doing well in its annual contributions, the liability has gone down, according to studies. “We are still doing very well, and we are far ahead of other towns and school districts,” Tierney said.

Principal Sara Dingledy asked the committee to what extent they are committed to OPEB: “Are we considering OPEB above all else, or are we looking at OPEB alongside every other expense?”


Bus fuss

Members of the committee reviewed a cost-neutral recommendation regarding the school’s bus replacement program that would lease a bus to the Charter School and increase yearly reimbursements to the high school. Currently, the line item in the budget for bus replacement is $325,000. This would allow the school to replace approximately three buses per year, according to Friedman.

“We were starting to fall a little behind in recent years, partly because the bus fleet has grown, and the numbers do not reflect that growth,” Friedman said. The proposal would increase the number of available bus replacements to four. The leasing costs, according to Friedman, would still be absorbed by the $325,000 line item, while allowing the school to get an extra bus.

“We are not required to transport down-Island kids. They [the Charter School] have asked us to transport students, and they will pay us. We would pay for four bus leases, and the charter school would reimburse us for one of them, that’s the good news,” Superintendent of Schools Matt D’Andrea said.


Honoring Jake Baird

Jake Baird’s grandparents and permanent guardians, Alfred III and Jill Woollacott, submitted a request to the school to establish an annual scholarship award in honor of Jake, who lost his life in an automobile accident last year. The request states, “This award would be given to a Project Vine graduating senior or seniors who exemplify the Project Vine spirit as Jake envisioned it — a program from which to learn and to value each other above all else.” The request was unanimously approved by the committee. According to the Project Vine website, teachers and students in the program “work collaboratively to provide an alternative to those students and parents who want a different, more personalized approach to their educational experience.” Project Vine supports smaller class sizes and individualized learning that is more student-centered.