Natick Town Administrator Jamie Errickson and Public Schools Supt. Dr. Anna Nolin led a presentation on Feb. 1 (see Pegasus recording) at a joint meeting with the town’s Finance Committee on the preliminary fiscal year 2024 budget. This balanced $193M plan reflects some unusual realities, including stimulus funding that won’t be around forever and financial turn backs resulting from hard-to-fill jobs.
We’ve embedded the overall budget, as well as the school budget that accounts for 44% of the overall town budget, at the bottom of this post.
“This is a rebalancing year for us,” Errickson said at the meeting, which helps to prep the government bodies for Annual Spring Town Meeting, slated to start on April 25. Post-pandemic trends are starting to emerge and local receipts are rebounding faster than expected, but inflation is being felt across the board (the Department of Public Works, for example, is experiencing a 10% cost increase from energy and supply chain issues). “So [the budget] certainly does come with some caution,” he said.
Nolin added to this by noting the schools’ efforts to “not to create a cliff of support,” where students’ are soon robbed of the sorts of academic, social, and emotional resources that pandemic-related funds have covered. “It is this delicate balancing act that we’re trying to do, and my School Committee governance team has been asking all the hard questions about which things in what order should stay and how do we plan for the long term,” she said.
Errickson cautioned that the preliminary budget has been crafted without knowing some key data, including health care costs and state aid (the latter of which he hopes will be increased and help the town restock general and operational stabilization accounts).
Deputy Town Administrator John Townsend dove into the details of the preliminary budget, highlighting among other things, a projected 27% increase in local receipts (excise tax, etc.) over the current fiscal year. While that’s certainly heading in the right direction, the projected amount still pales vs. the receipts that would have been expected by now if there hadn’t been a pandemic. “So while the pandemic has receded, we from a financial point of view are still suffering from it,” he added.
Townsend also covered other revenue issues, including planned restraint on using free cash and reserves to shore up the town’s financials in the way it has had to do over the past few years.
On the expense side, he highlighted the biggest increases, which will come from schools and its $83M-plus budget and public works, facing nearly a 10% increase in costs. Debt service is an area to watch, but Townsend noted the town didn’t need to do any large scale borrowing during the pandemic without big projects getting underway.
A public form will be scheduled between now and Town Meeting, and a revised budget book will be out by the end of March, he said.
Supt. Nolin joined forces with Assistant Superintendent for Finance Dr. Peter Gray in sharing the school system budget, over 90% of which is fixed based on mandates and contracts, such as for busses and teachers’ pay.
Nolin addressed challenges in coming up with a budget. These included everything from surprising changes to the student population (Natick had an influx of refugee students, including from Ukraine, who required English Learner services) to teacher shortages (25-30 per day). “It’s a time of extreme change in our profession and desirability of being an educator in public schools,” Nolin said.
The compensation request is up 3% and the request for other expenses is 13.5% higher than in fiscal year 2023. Compensation is rising in part because Natick is striving to reward teachers who stick around for a long time. Nolin acknowledged Natick was one of the few districts in the area without longevity incentives. With nearly half the staff in the system for over 11 years, Natick Public Schools want “to send the message that experienced teachers matter in the district,” Nolin said.
Natick’s also looking to fill new positions, including those related to the upcoming closure of Johnson Elementary School and due to the need for more technology instruction for staff. A surprising increase in French language popularity also calls for a new middle school teacher. More staff are needed as well to address early student intervention as a result of possible and actual learning and socialization delays caused by the pandemic. More parents are asking for special education evaluations. “We are about to see the impact of those children hitting elementary school,” Nolin said.
Other expenses are up for assorted reasons, including inflation affecting utility and fuel costs, an $800K out-of-district tuition increase (not something the district is taking lying down, per Nolin), and teacher and student laptop replacements.
To the future
During Q&A with the School Committee, Select Board, and Finance Committee, the presenters fielded questions about the FY24 budget, but also those going forward. Things have been messy and unusual over the past few years, as new sorts of grants and outside funds have become available that likely won’t be available going forward, and there have been big changes in staffing and services as more work shifted to online and town employees had more work piled on them.
Errickson stressed his focus on figuring out how to retain good staff, and rightsize the amount of work they should be expected to handle. “For me, rightsizing isn’t cutting or adding, rightsizing is what’s the reality of the job market and let’s figure out how we can position our existing positions,” which could include adding consultants or addressing community service needs in other ways, he said.
The town’s administration is admittedly looking ahead month to month and quarter to quarter, with longer-term projections much more challenging. Errickson said that a year ago he never could have foreseen the way some things have stabilized or improved, and that while increased local receipts and the Boston area’s general economic strength offer room for optimism, there are also broader forces at play, including the geopolitical environment. “It is a crystal ball that is really challenging to look into right now,” he said.
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