Rising Special Education Costs Contribute to $1 Million Shortfall for FY24 Watertown School Budget

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The Watertown Public Schools face a shortfall of around $1 million for the 2023-24 school year (Fiscal Year 2024), due in part to a large increase in the cost of special education.

Monday night the School Committee heard the FY24 preliminary budget presentation from School administrators, who said the Watertown Public School’s level-services budget faces a significant deficit. This budget would provide the same level of services and programs available to students during the current school year, though it might require additional staff to provide the service due to increased enrollment in a certain grade or in a particular program, said Heidi Perkins, the WPS Director of Finance and Operations.

The Watertown Schools will receive a 3.5 percent increase from the City over the FY23 budget, or $2.84 million, which would make the FY24 budget $55.64 million. The amount needed to cover a level-services budget is $58.47 million, as of Jan. 23, Perkins said, and the gap has increased since then due to more students being placed in out-of-district special education programs.

“Actually, it is a little more than that. Since we did the presentation (in January) there have been a few more out of district placements. It’s probably closer to a million (dollars) right now.”

In January, Perkins told the School Committee’s Budget & Finance Subcommittee that out-of-district special education costs have risen sharply. This is due in part to more students going to out specialized programs to meet their needs, but a bigger hit came from a large increase in the tuition charged by these programs.

“The state approved an out-of-district tuition increase of 14 percent, which traditionally, over the last 10 years, has been 2 percent, 1.8 percent, 1 percent,” Perkins said. “It was very steady. We always budgeted (for a) 2 percent (increase). This year, moving into FY24, we had to budget 14 percent — roughly $800,000.”

The state does provide some relief to districts in the form of a Special Education Circuit Breaker, but Perkins noted that the money comes after the fact, and the amount they will receive won’t be known until several months after the end of the school year. Also, the reimbursement is only for the portion over $50,000. The district must cover the first $50,000 for each student.

Superintendent Dede Galdston said that many of the new out-of-district placements were for students adversely impacted by the Pandemic.

“We have amazing educators here in Watertown,” Galdston said. “All across the buildings we have programs really equipped to meet most of the needs of our students, but we always have a few students who do need to have additional support outside the district.”

The transportation costs may rise, Perkins said, because the district is negotiating a new bus contract. Next year, there will also be buses taking students to the temporary high school at Moxley Field, however the cost will be part of the Watertown High School project budget, not the schools’ operating budget.

While the price of electricity and natural gas have risen, Perkins said that there will only be a small increase in utility expenses. The solar arrays at Cunniff and Hosmer elementary schools will be online next school year, and the largest user of natural gas — Watertown High School — will be torn down next year. The solar panels have not been hooked up yet, Perkins said, largely because of delays by Eversource.

The budget adds the equivalent of a full time assistant principal, because half the salary of two assistant principals were covered in FY23 by a pandemic relief grant received by Watertown. Those salaries must now be completely covered by the district’s operational budget.

The budget includes the increases for staff longevity and teachers who earned enough education credits to qualify for a lane change increase.

See the FY24 preliminary budget presentation document here, and watch the Budget & Fiscal Subcommittee FY24 budget presentation here.

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