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School budget increases 4.7%, but still level funded

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Frank Hackett, center, speaks about the budget during a public hearing on Jan. 23 before the School Committee's regular meeting. WINCHESTER NEWS STAFF PHOTO/NELL ESCOBAR COAKLEY

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The school budget is going up by nearly 5%, but officials say there are no extras and only contractual increases.

The School Committee presented its fiscal year 2025 budget Tuesday night to the public, a proposed $66.2 million, an increase of 4.74%.

Additionally, a question and answer session followed the meeting, where several frustrated parents asked where in the budget they could find the School Department’s commitment to improving the literacy curriculum for all students, including those with special needs, and asking where additional resources for teachers would come from. 

Both School Committee Chair Tom Hopcroft and Superintendent Dr. Frank Hackett let parents know a meeting has been planned for Feb. 13 for a more in-depth discussion on the literacy curriculum.

The evening began with the superintendent emphasizing the FY25 budget is a purely “level services budget,” with no new positions or curriculum initiatives, but only contractual increases for current teachers and other education professionals.

The budget encompasses the third year of the contract with the teachers’ union, giving a 4% increase to teachers and different increases to other positions.

Hackett said the bump is intended to “make us more competitive with other towns than we have been.”

“We don’t want people to go a few miles away just so they can make $10,000 or $12,000 more [and then having to start] all over again with a new staff member,” he said. 

Hackett said several times that “the best thing we can do for students is to keep the excellent staff that we have in place.”

Hackett said this year’s budget does include some projections for out-of-district tuition costs, but there are many factors that could change between now and the next school year. He reiterated it is “difficult to come up with a budget at the end of January for a school year that doesn’t start until next September.”

Hackett also pointed out that last year Town Meeting approved an increase of 6.7% from the previous year’s budget only to have that fall to 3.76% after a handful of teacher retirements, and several one-time funding sources were applied.

These sources included $240,000 in ARPA funding for the Lynch to Parkhurst buses, which is not guaranteed for fiscal year 2025, and ESSR ($134,000) and IDEA ($356,000) funds for out of district tuition costs, neither of which will be available again.

Given that Hackett doesn’t expect as many teacher retirements this year and these one-time funding sources will be gone, he highlighted why this creates a more challenging budget environment, especially in light of the larger budget issue in town where expenses are expected to grow more than revenue in the next few years. 

“What’s challenging for the town of Winchester and the School Department, is that any increase in the school budget is a direct impact to residential taxpayers,” he said, explaining that towns with a larger commercial tax base absorb such increases. 

Hackett presented a slide showing Winchester’s per pupil spending is in the bottom 30th percentile in the state because of this.

A final factor that is not yet included in this iteration of the budget is projected enrollment, but as Hackett noted, both the River Street and Cambridge Street developments are expected to bring more students as people move in; 80-91 estimated from River Street, and 50-61 from Cambridge Street. 

School Committee member Chris Nixon added developments at Washington and Swanton streets and on Cross Street are advancing through the town’s approval process, and will likely add even more students.

Committee members Michelle Bergstrom and Karen Bolognese both asked the superintendent about the possibility of including any new curriculum programming for the coming school year, and Hackett answered those could be considered next September after all other factors, including new hires, have been finalized.

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