School Board addresses budget for food service and unclaimed grants

By Matthew Robare

 

In her monthly financial report to the School Committee last Thursday, Pola Andrews, the executive director for finance and operations for Saugus Public Schools, said that expenditures are in line with the budget.

“We are right on target with the budget this year,” she said. “Thirty-five percent of the school year has passed and fifty percent of the fiscal year has passed. Fifty-eight percent of the budget remains.”

Andrews added that through the end of December $10,705,824 had been used of a $25,610,250 appropriation for the 2013 fiscal year. She also said that there were no “true deficits” in the budget—certain reimbursements involving the Belmonte Middle School construction project hadn’t been accounted for when she was putting the report together. However, she did say that the committee might have to add more money in coming months to the line item for paying legal fees.

There was also some discussion about the food service firm the public schools had contracted for meals possibly running a deficit. “My concern is that we’ve always been running a deficit in that program,” said School Committee Member Arthur Grabowski. “We have an agreement in the contract that we can’t go into deficit,” said School Committee Member Rick Doucette.

Ultimately, there’s still a positive balance in the account for food service. Saugus Public Schools recently switched to Aramark for food service and, in light of past difficulties, the committee has been watching their operations carefully.

“We’ve had such a bad experience with food service—in my opinion,” remarked School Committee Chairman Wendy Reed.

Some of that experience included strange federal guidelines. “You had to take an orange colored food for it to be considered ‘lunch,’” Doucette noted. He explained that the guideline was part of a reimbursement program for lunches and resulted in school districts where large numbers of carrots were thrown away every day.

School Committee Cice Chairman Corinne Riley was looking for guidance on how to proceed on getting a state grant for the tennis courts at the Belmonte Middle School. She said that State Representative Donald Wong obtained $30,000 for them during the budget negotiations last summer. However, due to various miscommunications the money remained unclaimed until Riley began investigating. At this point she was told that because Governor Deval Patrick wanted budget cuts, the unclaimed grants had been halved and might be cut again. She’s been working on the paperwork to claim the money, but Town Manager Scott Crabtree had asked all the town’s officials to make sure they go through him for grants and related things, so Riley wasn’t sure what to do next.

Reed told her to keep talking to Crabtree but was skeptical that $15,000 could fix the tennis courts. Reed also said that one of the solar companies interested in the town offered to do a free feasibility study for installing solar panels on the roofs of school buildings. She said that they were looking at Belmonte, Lynnhurst, the high school, and the Veterans’ school.

“They have an investor who buys the project because he gets savings from alternative energy grants,” Doucette explained. “We buy energy to pay back the investment.”

Executive Director of Pupil Personnel Services and Special Education Heather Geary reported that Guidance Councillor Nancy Saunders contributed a chapter to a new textbook, “Mental Health Promotion in Schools: Foundations.” Geary said it’s an e-book published by Bentham Science.

Geary also said that a federally-mandated parent involvement survey was coming up. Parents can complete the survey online or pick up a hard copy in schools. “States must collect this data,” she said.

Also in the world of mandated activities, Geary said that the state wanted Saugus Public Schools to do the Child Find program more effectively: Public schools in Massachusetts are required to look for students (ages 3–21) who might be disabled so that parents know that the schools have services for them.

“It just seems to me that it’s the pediatrician’s responsibility,” Reed opined.

“It’s still our responsibility to offer this service,” Geary responded. She added that pediatricians can refer children for special education, but only with a parent’s consent.

School Superintendent Richard Langlois told the committee that the schools were making an investment in Chromebooks for grades 3–5—the relatively inexpensive laptops will allow Saugus Public Schools to keep up with curriculum changes and the introduction of online testing.

He said that the filing period for statements of interest with the Massachusetts School Building Authority for fiscal year 2013 was open. Last year, in response to a New England Association of Schools and Colleges report, Saugus Public Schools sought funding from Town Meeting and the MSBA to improve the science labs at Saugus High School, both to provide students with better science educations and fix a number of safety issues. The state of the science labs was considered dire enough by NEASC that the high school’s accreditation was in jeopardy.

However, Town Meeting did not approve the project; instead, they were convinced by Town Meeting Member Peter Manoogian to direct the school committee to try to get a new high school built, in light of the other deficiencies with the building, such as a lack of sprinklers.

“They’re going to hold it to us as a town to mitigate,” Langlois said. He also reported that the budget process for Fiscal Year 2014 was off to a good start: “We’re a day off.”

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