A $109,202,984 education budget for 2014-15, with a 4.82 percent increase over current spending, was approved Thursday night by the Board of Finance.
The school budget, approved by a 4-3 vote, followed the finance board's approval earlier in the week of a $76,595,682 budget for municipal expenditures. Both spending packages now move on to the Representative Town Meeting for final review before the start of the new fiscal year July 1.
The financiers approved an education budget that was $1,116,500 less than the budget the Board of Education had been considering as late as Monday night -- $110.3 million, or a 5.9 percent increase over current spending.
But in a last-minute meeting just before the finance board met, the reduction was made based on updated financial data concerning medical claims for January and February released late last Friday on the school system's health-insurance fund, according to Board of Education Chairwoman Elaine Whitney.
The $1.11 million cut includes removal of $733,000 that would have re-established a 5 percent risk corridor or "safety net" in the health account.
"I understand the issue over the past six months with respect to health care," said finance board member Brian Stern. The school board had been struggling with an anticipated shortfall in its current budget, at one point estimated at $2 million. That number was reduced most recently to $355,009, but those updated figures released last Friday now show there is an anticipated surplus in the 2013-14 budget of $293,000.
"I get nervous when numbers fly around," said Stern. "We should get things right and understand them before we vote on them."
He said he was ready to decide on the bulk of the education budget "all except the health care" portion.
"What's the urgency?" he asked, "I just don't see the rush." "If they are wrong on the claims, then we will be in trouble again," added finance member Michael Rea.
"Although I'm frustrated with the numbers, I'm reluctant to leave that big a hole in the budget," finance member Tom Lasersohn said of the $15 million health care account. "I'm tolerant of claims variance," said Lasersohn, adding that's not the case with "calculation errors."
He then motioned to approve the budget submitted by Whitney, less $200,000, or $109,002,984.
Concern was then raised over what else would need to be cut to accommodate the reduction, with Lasersohn saying he expected it could be done "without affecting any programs." He said all school officials need to do is to "sharpen pencils."
He also suggested there are "some outside services we can look" that might be cut. Finance member Janis Collins initially supported the $200,000 cut, saying "at least give it a shot," but took back that support just prior to the vote.
Finance member Lee Caney said he doesn't want to spend "money we don't have," but said he didn't support the motion.
Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon said his proposed budget was already reduced by nearly $700,000. "I would ask you to think twice before adding to it," he said.
Only several from the audience spoke on the proposed budget. "I don't support this budget because it's too lean," said Sheila Flynn, PTA Council co-president, who said she supported Landon's original budget.
She also raised the issue that the school board meeting called just before Thursday night's finance meeting did not allow "proper public discussion" on the revised budget Whitney presented. She said only three people were allowed to speak.
Finance member Janis Collins said she was "confused by what" Flynn said. "So was it public?" she asked Whitney about the meeting.
Whitney said that after a special school board meeting Monday night the board "reconvened to think about new information" and because of timing had to have the meeting when it took place. Collins said she felt there might not have been "enough public input" and expressed concern about that.
The motion to approve the budget at $109,002,984 -- with the $200,000 cut -- failed to pass. Lasersohn and John Pincavage voted for it, but three other finance members were opposed, with one abstention.
On the final vote, Lasershon, Stern and Pincavage voted against the $109,202,984 spending, with the four other members in favor.