The regional school committee has directed the middle and high school principals to take a closer look at their budgets.

KINGSTON – With the goal of cutting $400,000 from the preliminary version of the 2019 Silver Lake regional operating budget, the regional school committee has directed the middle and high school principals to take a closer look at their budgets.

Kingston Finance Committee member Carl Pike recommended $400,000 in cuts, or a 1.6 percent decrease from the proposed $25.5 million Silver Lake operating budget.

While a Finance Committee member, Pike said that speaking as a resident and grandfather he believes the schools are the most important function of local government and is a staunch support of the district and its teachers. However, he said, resources for funding school budgets are limited.

He said 3.3 percent average increases in the Silver Lake budget over the last several years are generally reasonable but not sustainable, particularly in times of extremely low inflation. He said declining enrollment and the impact of charter schools on state aid are also important factors.

He said he thinks it’s necessary to be proactive in planning for the loss of students to charter schools and to get control over escalating special education costs, and that he believes local schools and governments should not consider medical insurance costs as fixed costs and should focus on controlling costs.

“I am hopeful that Kingston is about to create a committee in the near future to seriously work this medical insurance cost issue, and I encourage Silver Lake to work with us,” he said.

The Silver Lake Regional School Committee is scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27, to review a second version of the draft budget with reductions to their proposed budgets. With new information pointing to $110,000 in part due to health insurance savings and a retirement, an additional $290,000 in cuts would need to be made.

Halifax Town Administrator Charlie Seelig delivered the good news on health insurance during the Feb. 8 public hearing on the budget, but he also delivered not so good news. He said he expects there will be a lot of unhappy campers with town departments already facing strict limits on their budgets and the Halifax school budget presenting a greater challenge than Silver Lake’s.

“Don’t feel it’s rejection if in fact the finance committee and town meeting say we can’t afford this,” he said. “It’s simply where we stand right now.”

Halifax Finance Committee Chairman Gordon Andrews said a requested $300,000 increase in funding from Halifax based on assessment figures is out of the question. He said an increase of any more than $150,000 is not affordable.

“There’s no way the town can afford that budget this year,” he said.

Kingston Finance Committee Chairman Mary MacKinnon said that while school officials are great stewards of the school district, it’s her role to remind the committee that there are no unlimited resources.

She said the ability to raise revenue at the local level to support programs is limited by the revenue that is generated and the property taxes that are raised, and with Kingston’s growth limited to $1.2 million, it will have to be stretched to close to $3 million.

“We are in a clear predicament,” she said, with the Kingston schools requesting an increase of $1.1 million, Silver Lake requesting $650,000, and town departments requesting increases totaling more than $900,000.

Superintendent Joy Blackwood said school officials are trying to balance the needs of the students with the needs of the towns.

School Committee members debated over giving the administration a set amount to cut from the first version of the budget. That approach won out. Blackwood said that was the approach taken last year when she asked the principals to make cut lists.

School Committee Laura Tilton of Kingston said they have received some guidance from the towns, and having a number as a guide is the best approach. She also supported putting the cuts in order.

“I think that prioritization is really helpful,” she said.

Silver Lake Education Association President Kim Orcutt said a Rutgers University study found that student success is linked to funding, and with charter schools impacting funding, the SLEA wants to work closely with the administration to keep students at Silver Lake.

She said students need to be given every opportunity possible to learn, and offering fewer electives that garner student interest isn’t the way and also leads to larger class sizes. She said teachers will continue donating their time for student programs but need supplies and support for programs to compete with charter schools.

Orcutt asked that when talking about dollar amounts officials from the towns be mindful that they are talking about people, not just numbers.

“Don’t forget when you are slashing those numbers that there are teachers here who give passionately every day that you cannot get back because you want to save a couple dollars here and there,” she said. “There has to be a better way to continue.”

Follow Kathryn Gallerani on Twitter @kgallreporter.