The Watertown Public Schools face a shortfall of $1.38 million for the next school year, but the gap will be narrowed by using some grant funds Watertown received for COVID relief.
On Monday night, Superintendent Dede Galdston presented the district’s budget for Fiscal Year 2024. The Watertown Schools will have an operating budget of $57,583,829, which is an increase of $1.947,279 over FY 23, or 3.5 percent. To provide a “level services budget,” where the same educational experience and programs are provided, Galdston said there was a deficit of $1.38 million.
Salaries account for about 80 percent of the budget, Galdston said, and the level services budget includes the raises for teachers in the recently approved contract, along with the step and lane change increases given for years working in the district and earning work-related college credits.
The district has also seen an increase of students needing additional support, including those with special needs, students whose first language is not English, and those from lower-income families.
“When I started, the number of first language not English (students) were much lower. Our English language learner numbers were in the single digits. Now they are at 15.6 percent — way higher than the state average,” Galdston said. “The low income numbers are higher (that the state average), students with disabilities are lower than state average but about in line.”
Watertown’s proportion of “high needs students,” which is a combination of students with disabilities, low income, and English language learners — is 50 percent, Galdston said.
Using Grant Funds
In 2021, the Watertown Schools received $2.8 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief III (ESSER III) grant funds as part of the federal American Rescue Plan, which is earmarked for dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on students. The district had multiple years to spend the money, and Galdston said that some of the money will be used to make up the deficit.
A large part of the deficit comes from an increase in tuition for out-of-district special education programs by 14 percent. Most years, the increase is about 2 percent, Galdston said. The 14 percent tuition hike increased special education costs by more than $2 million.
At the same time, the district has also seen an increase in the number of students needing to attend out-of-district programs, which happens when the district does not have a program that meets his or her needs. On average, about 52 students are sent out of district, Galdston said, but this year the number is 65.
“There is no way we can absolutely determine if this is related to COVID,” she said, “but we do have, post-COVID, many students who are not able to access curriculum for a variety of reasons, whether it is because they were remote or whether because re-socialization has become challenging or difficult.”
Next year, the Watertown schools will get some help from the state’s Special Education Circuit Breaker, but those funds reimburse districts for the prior year’s special education spending.
School officials had planned to use ESSER Funds for transportation, health insurance and summer learning programs. Galdston said the district has been able to pay for school buses and the summer learning programs. Also, the district has seen some people not choose to go with the district’s health care program, plus some positions have not been hired, so the health insurance won’t be added to the budget.
Another program that had been planned to begin using the grant money is universal prekindergarten. Galdston said that the program remains a priority, but it will have to wait.
“I think the community knows that this is something I am committed to,” she said. “We will work through this and figure something out. But also, I would not want to spend ESSER funding knowing we are in a $1.3 million deficit and not knowing what the future looks like. It is really not right to start a program we cannot support until we are in a position where we know we can sustain it. It would not be in the best interest of the families.”
While the budget is level services, Galdston said the district has come up with positions it would like to add if and when the funds become available. Some include: a behavioralist at Hosmer Elementary School, a guidance counselor/social worker at Lowell Elementary School, an instructional coach at Cunniff Elementary School, increased special education support at Cunniff, increases student services support at the district level, an ESL teacher at the high school, increase Spanish at the Middle School and High School, and ESL lead teacher the Middle School.
Galdston said the budget was built keeping the district’s mission statement in mind: “Watertown Public Schools creates an equitable, challenging and innovative learning environment where everyone belongs and every student is empowered to shape the world around them.”
Part of the statement is the commitment to equity, and multiple parents asked where that can be seen in the budget.
Galdston said there is a line item for Department of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging which has a $100,000 allocation, but it is also included in other parts of the budget, though it may not be as evident because the budget presentation is a “30,000-foot view” of the budget.
“It is definitely part of what we do,” Galdston said. “This year unlike every other year in the past, we had equity coaches which help to coach up core equity within our classrooms. Having small classrooms is equity — making sure we are meeting the needs of our students. Funding intervention programs that we use that are helping to promote equity. It is not a line item, it is the spirit of what we do as a community meeting the needs of our students.”
She said the budget book has more detail.
The School Committee will vote on the budget on Thursday, April 13 at 5 p.m. It will be held remotely, and can be accessed here: https://watertown-k12-ma-us.zoom.us/j/82873567896
School Committee Chair Kendra Foley said people can send comments and questions before the meeting by email to firstname.lastname@example.org
After the School Committee approves the budget, it will be presented to the City Council in late-May and approved as part of the City Budget in June.