By Katina Caraganis
TOWNSEND -- The North Middlesex Regional School Committee finance subcommittee authorized Superintendent of Schools Joan Landers to find ways to cut even more from the fiscal 2014 operating budget so that Pepperell's contribution does not exceed $472,000.
Pepperell has been paying below its target share for years and, in a formula used by the state to determine how much each town in a regional school district pays to fund its portion of the budget, Pepperell's share went up sharply.
Members of the finance subcommittee went into the budgeting season promising that the budget would not require any of the district's member towns to have to pass a Proposition 2 1/2 override to fund its portion of the budget.
The subcommittee voted 3-0 to support the motion, made by member Arnie Silva, to work with Pepperell officials to keep the town's costs low enough to afford the budget.
"I'm not taking this recommendation lightly," said Silva, who participated in Monday night's meeting by phone. "We have to do what we can do make sure nobody is going for an override because of this process."
The district successfully passed a Proposition 2 1/2 override last year to fund its budget.
In order to fulfill the committee's mandate, Landers must give the subcommittee options to cut a total of $372,000 from the budget, as proposed. If she cannot cut the total amount, Silva said he would support balancing the budget with money from the district's reserve account.
Through such a measure, Ashby and Townsend, whose local contribution went down, will not be asked to pay more for their respective shares.
Committee member Susan Robbins agreed with Silva's proposal, saying, "Pepperell is in a very difficult position, and I don't want to add to that."
Landers said she would do what she could between the conclusion of Monday's meeting and Thursday night's full School Committee meeting.
During Monday's meeting, Landers presented to the subcommittee what the budget for the next fiscal year would look like if it only increased by 1.5 percent. It included eliminating one high-school administrator, one information-technology staff position, reducing contract services, and reducing out-of-district placements, primarily because many students have aged out of the system.
She is also proposing adding 2.5 special-education paraprofessionals at the elementary school, an English Language Learner tutor at an elementary school and two middle-school math teachers, and changing one tutor to a full-time teacher.
Also, she's proposing adding one social worker in the district, as well as a part-time occupational therapist and a part-time speech/language pathologist.
Program needs for the next fiscal year, Landers said, including one special-education teacher at North Middlesex Regional High School and one paraprofessional, and adding two positions to a program for 18-to-22-year-olds.
By doing that, she said, she's saving the district nearly $200,000 in out-of-district placements for those students.
Nonstaff needs that Landers would like to see funded include enhanced Internet services, replacing rooftop units at Hawthorne Brook Middle School and Varnum Brook Elementary School, implementing a sports-uniform replacement program, and funding the PSATs for the sophomore class.
"I'm not advocating cutting out total programs for students that would not be in the best interest of the students," Landers said during Monday's meeting. "With direction from the committee, I would have to make some difficult decisions. I will be trying to make sure it's not affecting kids in the classroom."
Landers will present the options she has come up with to cut Thursday night, and then will prepare the final budget to be presented at a public hearing later this month.