In an effort to cut costs, District 5 Councilor Gary Rosen is asking City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. to look into the possibility of city administration absorbing several financial and administrative responsibilities from Worcester Public Schools central office.
Rosen placed the item on the agenda for the Tuesday, Feb. 23, City Council meeting. The item “is an effort to consolidate and eliminate duplication of efforts — thereby saving taxpayer dollars,” Rosen wrote in an email to the Sun.
Rosen’s proposal comes on the heels of an unprecedented set of recommendations made by the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce earlier this month which aim to control costs in the school budget for fiscal 2017 in light of recent estimates that enrollment trends will continue to point upward and expenses will inevitably climb.
“Anything that the city can do to save money, they should,” School Committee member John Monfredo said. “Under the leadership of Ed Augustus, we have been much better off than we have been in the past.”
Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed budget portends a $22 million shortfall for the city in fiscal 2017, Monfredo said.
“Hopefully there’s going to be changes in the budget after the House and Senate meet. I’m really disappointed in the governor’s budget, especially since they didn’t look at the Chapter 70 Commission report. The report did an incredible job looking at reforms on what funding is needed around special education and health education,” Monfredo said.
The school department, according to Monfredo, is hoping for an adjustment to the cost-of-living estimate. This would result in $9 million in additional state aid for the city.
Preliminary reports for fiscal 2017 from the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education show the Worcester school department receiving $235.3 million in state Chapter 70 funding ($4 million more than last year), with the school district contributing $97.2 million of its own funds to cover the foundation budget of $332.5 million.
For the current fiscal year, the School Committee approved a budget of $369.2 million. According to one report, the school department budget for the next fiscal year could have an operational deficit of $5 million.
According to Monfredo, districts usually receive 14 percent more in funding than the proposed foundation budget.
Last year, as a result of student enrollment increasing by nearly 600 students, Chapter 70 funding spiked by nearly $11 million, making it the largest increase in funding since fiscal 2012, according to the schools’ budget summary.
Chapter 70 aid was based on a foundation enrollment — the number of students the school district is responsible for — of 27,452, per state figures.
Worcester’s total current student enrollment, according to the state education board, is 25,076. Compared to last year, the preliminary reports for next fiscal year show a projected decrease in foundation enrollment to 27,381.
While city projections also forecast a temporary decline, enrollment over the next several years is expected to grow significantly, according to school officials, in a recent T&G report.
On Monday evening, members of the School Committee’s Superintendent Search Committee — Monfredo, Brian O’Connell and Jack Foley — will meet at the Durkin Administration Building, 10 Irving St., to discuss the selection of the next superintendent.
Monfredo said he believes the next budget will be of utmost importance for the next superintendent, especially if the chamber’s $5 million deficit estimate is accurate.
Ahead of Thursday’s School Committee meeting, Monfredo requested the city take into consideration the recommendations provided by the chamber to help schools save money and close the budget gap.
Like Rosen’s request on the feasibility of the city handling certain school administrative duties, the chamber recommended several ideas that would save the city money and transfer more responsibility to City Hall.
Those recommendations include all public school employees sharing the same health care co-pay as other city workers, which the chamber estimates would save $1.5 million annually; releasing requests-for-proposals for landscaping and maintenance of school grounds; and having the Department of Public Works and Parks handle permitting for the use of school fields and facilities.
The first school board Finance Committee meeting is Monday, Feb. 29, and, according to School Committee member Molly McCullough, the panel will discuss the Chapter 70 preliminary numbers and begin to address these projected budget shortfalls.