Marion Finance Committee to start tri-town effort

Jul 11, 2019

MARION — After years with little insight into how the Old Rochester Regional school district runs its budget, and concerns about growing budget gaps, the Marion Finance Committee resolved to look into the school’s finances.

The Committee gathered to decide their top research priorities and picked members for a subcommittee that it hopes will address school finances in all three towns on July 10.

However, with a new Director of Public Works just hired in March and making rapid changes, it made more sense to the board to focus on the school systems first, with a goal to review all three areas by January.

The school budgets are funded by the town, money from special education, grants and circuit breaker funds, or reimbursements from the state for providing legally-mandated special education services. However for the past few years schools have been coming up with a deficit, which they must pay off at the last minute.

“In fiscal year 2021 we really need to focus attention on this. It’s teachers’ contracts. ORR salaries are probably 80 percent, 70 percent [of the school budget] I am guessing,” said Mooney. 

The school is currently in contract negotiations for fiscal years 2021 and 2022.

“I don’t have a problem offering teachers high pay, but let’s have a performance-based system,” Winters said. 

Finance Committee chairman Peter Winters pointed out that if school deficits are $500,000 or $600,000 and Marion gets more than a third of that expense, that would be all of the town’s allowed 2.5 percent tax increase (under Proposition 2-1/2), meaning it would have to cut in other areas.

He also pointed out that the school was off in its utilities costs, though he conceded that “there’s a lot of stuff going on here,” to determine the budget.

Another issue that the finance committee discussed as a contributing factor in the budget was school choice students.

Mooney pointed out that ORR has “119 students funded by school choice out of 400 students. That’s a lot,” she said. 

Finance Committee member Karen Kvelson pointed out that schools “Still have a financial problem if you are getting $5,000 for school choice students but spending $18,000 or $19,000 on them.”

Town Administrator Jay McGrail explained that school committee members “never have a chance to get into the overall financials” of the school budget.

Mooney said that with a research effort, the group would be able to “focus on what are actual expenses?” and gather data to see where the school is going in the future.   

Committee member Charles Larkin said that “we really shouldn’t do this in a vaccuum without the other two funding sources.” Committee members decided to also ask Mattapoisett and Rochester to weigh in.

Kvelson seemed skeptical. “We have tried for ten years to work with the school system, but we haven’t been good or successful at it,” she said.

But other members suggested that if school committees and town finance committees worked together it would work.

The Finance Committee picked two volunteers to sit on its proposed ORR budget group subcommittee, and plans to reach out to other towns and school committees for additional members.