“We are going to do what it takes to educate the kids. Students' needs are going to be met,” said Randolph School Committee chairwoman Ida Gordon.
Randolph School Superintendent Thea Stovell presented the 2020 school budget during the May 30 meeting and was met by many questions from school committee member Andrea Nixon, who said the budget process was confusing this year due to several fiscal year 2020 budget revisions.
And Gordon herself called the final few months "the worst budget process" in the decade that she's been on the committee.
The schools originally requested a 3.8 percent budget increase over its fiscal year 2019 budget, but the town wanted departments to adhere to a 2 percent hike. Eventually the school department settled on a 2.5 percent increase, which was cut to 2.3 percent by town council which objected to a line item for a position.
The schools passed the budget, but not until after a pointed discussion among a small minority of the committee.
As a part of her presentation to the school committee, Stovell said Randolph has a higher per-student cost than neighboring towns, in part due to the number of special needs students.
“We’re going to work around just making sure we’re providing a solid special education program and minimize cost to provide a quality specialized education and minimize cost as much as possible without negatively impacting the students," she said. "So, our number, I will say I think two years ago we were at 23 percent. We’re at 26 percent in terms of special education. That’s much higher than the state. It’s much higher than our surrounding areas. And so we’ve got to look at our Special Education program and see why that is."
She added that costs for busing elementary school students also are high.
She added that current cost for in-system transporting special education students is approximately $2.7 million. If it were contracted out, costs would be between $2.6 and $2.9 million.
Nixon came prepared with a list of questions on the budget.
“I have all of this,” she said, picking up a pile of papers.
Nixon requested that salaries be broken out and for expiring contracts. Nixon was interrupted by Gordon, who asked, “Excuse me, does this have to do with the budget?”
Nixon replied, “Absolutely.”
Regarding the employee contracts, Nixon asked, “There’s a bunch that will expire as of June 30. And so, have these been renewed? Have the evaluations been done? And if they have, can we get copies of the evaluations that justify the 2.5 percent increases in their contracts?”
Stovell replied, “I don’t think I can give you their evaluations. But everyone’s evaluation has been done. I can check. I don’t know if theirs are public. I know mine is public”.
“We’ve had five different versions of this budget sheet - three in May alone." There have been no school committee meetings to discuss the changes. We got an email the 28th that said there were minor changes. When I’ve gone through it, they not minor changes. They were major changes."
One change was the removal of an accountant salary of $100,000. Stovell countered no one was laid off, but it was eliminated when the town council voted to remove the $83,000 out of the budget.”
Nixon pointed out the additional changes to the budget, including removal of a data specialist.
No other school committee member raised questions about the budget line items.
Randolph town council addressed the school committee "on behalf of the majority of the town council. And I understand that the vote on the budget that the town council took has not been met well or excitedly by some of the community. And I also understand that the school department has the final say over how money is spent within the line items within the budget.
“I’m fine with all that. What I’m not fine with is information that is not accurate that comes out to the community.”
He said the committee "should be cutting tonight is $84,000 (the approximate figure the town council cut). Am I correct? In fact tonight, you are cutting $263,528.”
He said the town council did not cut this much from the budget.
"Mr. Burgess," Gordon said. "Let me just make that clear. You are presenting what you find in your budget. The superintendent presented a budget and we’re going to be voting on, so I’m not going to be answering your questions to this budget because it’s already presented.”
Burgess did continue to review the budget numbers to point out the $263,000 budget cut by the school finance office. Stovell said there were problems with the prior year’s numbers before she was superintendent.
“We had to go back and make it reflect the actual numbers from the town,” she said.
“In the 10 years that I’ve been sitting here on the school committee, this is the worst budget process that I have experienced," Gordon said. "And why? Because you all are going through and checking changes too.”
She further described difficulties in scheduling meetings with acting Town Manager Brian Howard due to everyone’s schedules.
Yahaira Lopez, who has a child in the JFK, said she disappointed in the back and forth clashes.
“I have to say that it is super frustrating sitting here and watching the personality clashes and the tit for tat foolishness," she said during public comments. "I want the conversation to be about the kids. We’re talking about people who don’t like each other. Calling people out. It’s just unnecessary. When are we going to start focusing on kids and bettering this community?”
Another parent, Lisa Millwood, agreed.
“I’m going to be honest with you," she said. "I have been absolutely and utterly disgusted with the behaviors of both the school committee and the town council. It’s embarrassing to be completely honest with you.”
The committee approved the budget of $43,261,107, with Nixon voting against and councilwoman Natascha Clerger abstaining.