Top Natick administration and public schools system officials this past week (see Feb. 1 Natick Pegasus recording) briefed the Select Board, School Committee, and Finance Committee—as well as the public—on preliminary budgets for fiscal year 2025, which starts this July. The focus was mainly on the operating budget, with more to come on the capital side, though financing of capital expenses was discussed.
The Finance Committee, a group of volunteers appointed by the town moderator, has begun its process of vetting budgets with the goal of providing recommendations to Town Meeting members ahead of the legislative body convening on April 23.
The Feb. 1 briefing was intended to give those in attendance an opportunity to listen and ask high-level questions. Those sharing numbers and explanations were praised for their detailed presentations.
Town Administrator Jamie Errickson acknowledged up front that FY25 looks to be both an “interesting” and “challenging” year, and warned that FY26 “is potentially going to be even more challenging.” Errickson also pointed out that the town awaits more details on healthcare costs, state aid, and some other revenue or expenses, before it can firm up the budget. Signals from the state regarding its tax revenue don’t have Natick officials optimistic that state aid will wildly exceed town projections.
John Townsend, deputy town administrator and director of finance, then dove into the $195.5M budget, roughly three quarters of which ($145M) would come from property taxes. The preliminary revenue figure is 0.7% higher than the previous fiscal year revenue budgeted. Local receipts, accounting for more than 9% of budgeted revenue, is on an upswing since the pandemic thanks in part to rising auto sales (which bring excise taxes to the town) and licenses and permits (Natick raised fees).
While most revenue sources look to be up at least a bit, one red flag is that American Rescue Plan Act funds that emerged during the pandemic to help offset revenue shortfalls will be going away in FY26. “We start from a hole in our budget of $2.8M” in FY26, he said.
Expense increases are largely modest, though there’s a projected 35% increase in Keefe Tech funding due to rising interest by students in vocational education (this isn’t considered a bad thing by town administrators). The town’s debt service is decreasing, as debt related to projects like the Senior-Community Center and Wilson Middle School goes off the books. Overall, the town would be looking at about an $88K surplus, which Townsend pledged not to spend all of in one place…
The preliminary budget is available online. An amended budget book will be made available in April, and a public forum about the budget will be held before Town Meeting.
School budget preview
Natick Public Schools Interim Superintendent Bella Wong, who started her job last July, picked up from there by discussing a budget that will no longer include Johnson Elementary School, which closes at the end of this school year. A few remaining classes will transition to other schools, as will staff. Overall, pre-school and elementary school enrollment is expected to remain steady over the next few years, while the middle school population dips and high school headcount rises and stays high for the next 5-to-7 years. Overall enrollment is expected to fall into the foreseeable future.
Wong briefed attendees on a roughly $90M preliminary FY 25 budget, up 7.9% from the previous fiscal year budget even while sticking with level services. Salaries—including for those hired to provide specialized services or whose jobs were previously grant funded—are the big driver of the increase, though rising transportation costs are also a factor. Possible staff reductions, most attained by not filling vacancies, would help to cut expenses as part of the budget plan.
Challenges for the schools going forward stem in part from continued pandemic impacts on students academic and social/emotional progress and in part from changing demographics, Wong said. This requires more specialized services for students. Nearly 1 in 5 students is now on an individualized education program (IEP), with about 100 additional students on such plans this year vs. last, plus a rising number of students are on 504 plans that require special accommodations for students. So about 1 in 4 students is on one of these plans or the other.
Natick has also seen a 23% rise in English Learners, who may or may not be on IEP or 504 plans.
One-time funding grants available during and immediately after the pandemic have been used to address changing student needs, but the concern now is how to continue supporting those needs as the funding phases out even as a long tail of pandemic effects is seen.
“The needs of students have increased. They have intensified over the pandemic, following the pandemic, and these needs are going to exist for some time,” Wong said. “So there has been an increase in special ed, specialized services, interventionists, math coaches, personalized learning coaches. And this is all to support the students and their needs, not just to catch them up because of the pandemic, but also to carry them forward and equip them for the future.”
She pointed out an intentional focus at the elementary level, including through the hiring of assistant principals, to help schools address student needs early on.
Wong presented the preliminary budget overview again at the Feb. 5 Natick School Committee meeting, shortly before the 2-hour mark of that meeting (see Pegasus recording).