HOPKINTON — During a lengthy discussion of the Chariho school budget, the Town Council approved a resolution Tuesday requesting that the School Committee approve an independent management study that would focus on improving efficiency in the school district.
The resolution, proposed by council Vice President Scott Bill Hirst, originally included a request for an independent financial audit. Such an audit, however, is already performed every year, so the audit reference was removed.
Lamenting the towns' lack of fiscal control over the school district, Hirst said it was time to take a harder stance on the budget.
“The bottom line is, the Chariho School Committee controls the cards and they only way to get their attention, seriously, is to vote against this budget,” he said.
The proposed 2021 school budget is $55 million, a 4.5% percent increase over the current year's budget of $52.4 million. All three towns would pay more to the school district in the new spending plan. Charlestown's increase at this point is 2.5%, Richmond's would be 3.9% and Hopkinton's share would increase by 6.6%, because its enrollment in the district has increased by 24 students.
The School Committee has reduced the budget by $463,303 so far during four budget workshops, but council President Frank Landolfi, who, with councilor Barbara Capalbo has attended several of the workshops, said that wasn’t nearly enough. Landolfi is demanding cuts of $1.3 million, the minimum required to keep Hopkinton’s tax increase from exceeding the 4% limit on tax increases set by the state.
“It started out at $2.7 million higher than last year,” he said. “Net — net, it was an increase of two students districtwide, and they added six staff members. So, not plausible. Doesn’t even pass the smell test by a long shot.”
Landolfi said he had urged the committee to consider reducing the district’s fund balance, but had met with resistance from some committee members.
“They’re still up $2.2 million from last year and they’re going back and fourth about a fund balance which I suggested they reduce from 3 to 2 percent, which will leave another $560,000 in the budget overall, and that needs to happen,” he said. “And still again, we have School Committee members that don’t understand the implications to the taxpayers … I said ‘If this doesn’t get reduced we’re going to have to go to court.’”
Capalbo, who has asked for $1.6 million in budget cuts, said they could be made without affecting teachers or student programs.“I think this will all work and I do think that we’re working on it,” she said.
Capalbo read a letter from Hopkinton School Committee member Catherine Giusti, in which Giusti said she had requested that Interim Superintendent of Schools Jane Daly and Finance Director Susan Rogers make an additional $1 million in cuts. “If we do that or even if we did more, we will be at a 2% increase overall," Giusti wrote. "I had asked for that prior to the last budget meeting … however there was a little miscommunication in terms of what I really wanted to see.”
Capalbo said she hoped the committee would find it possible to reduce the budget by at least $1 million.
“I’m hoping that will be able to be possible, because if not, it is a difficulty, and I also think that it will be voted down if Richmond and Hopkinton come out in full,” she said.
The council also agreed to ask the School Committee to provide a list of contractual expenses and non-contractual expenses.
“I want to know what we’re able to cut and what we’re not able to cut and I still haven’t gotten an answer, so I am not letting that go," Landolfi said. "I am going to get an answer for it. I want to know, of the $2.2 million that’s still left over and above last year’s budget, what is contractual, that we cannot reduce and what is not … I haven’t gotten an answer yet and it’s very frustrating, so I will be emailing Jane Daly and Sue Rogers again on that and ask them for that particular information."
The next School Committee budget meeting is on Feb. 11.