District urged to cut now, as future looks grim

CHATHAM – The school board heard some ominous news about its long-term finances at Tuesday night’s regular meeting, as Dr. Rick Timbs talked about how state budget deficits will affect school district aid. But Dr. Timbs said the Chatham School District is in better shape for the short term than many other districts, because it has substantial reserve funds.

At the October 12 meeting, Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo also announced that there is a vacancy on the board with the resignation of Fred Hutchinson, and the board has decided to appoint a new member by the end of November. Members set up a timeline for advertising the position, conducting interviews with candidates and appointing the new board member.

The board also approved the members of a new Public Library Advisory Committee, which the board created to advise the district on issues involving the library and for community outreach. The Chatham Public Library is one of only two public libraries in the state that is funded through the school budget, and the school board will continue to have final say on any budget or programming decisions.

The new members of the advisory panel will be Nancy C. Hammell, Karen Malina, John T. McGowan, Elizabeth K. Powers and Al Vinck. Two school board members and the superintendent will also be on the library committee.

As part of his presentation this week, Dr. Timbs brought several slides that outlined current budget issues and projected budgets. He praised the district for having about $2 million in reserves, which will help cover costs of retirement benefits, capital projects and workers’ compensation. He said other districts in the state that he works with are taking out loans to cover payroll expenses this school year.

“This is a big deal,” he said, adding, “You’ve done a great job.” But he also stressed that the money now held in reserve will be spent.

“You’re going to have to find ways to reduce expenses drastically,” Dr. Timbs told the board. He said that state aid will be cut and districts will have less money to replenish reserve funds. Citing his projections, he said that if the numbers at the state level continue to decline, and salaries and benefits continue to increase, the district will have a structural deficit by 2016.

He advised the board to look at staffing, facilities and enrollment. The district has seen a steady decline in enrollment, and has started the discussions about whether it needs three separate school buildings. Dr. Timbs said that a lot of districts in the state are considering “right sizing” to save money, and many districts are also looking into consolidation, although that comes with costs as well as cuts.

Dr. Timbs talked about property tax caps, which are currently being discussed at the state level. He worried that school districts could lose a major source of revenue if caps are imposed.

Board member David O’Connor said that property taxes needed to be looked at. “This tax burden is what we’re answering for in the public,” said Mr. O’Connor.

Giving money back to taxpayers, as the district did this year when the board realized it had a surplus that could reduce the tax levy, is not an approach Dr. Timbs endorsed. “You can do that, but it’s clear you’ll have to ask for it back,” he said.

The board will meet again Tuesday, October 26 at 6:30 p.m.

To contact reporter Emilia Teasdale email .

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