Credit: illustration by David Vergara

The Needham Public Schools expect to end fiscal year 2023 with a budget surplus of slightly more than $3 million.

Superintendent of Schools Dan Gutekanst delivered this news at Tuesday morning’s meeting of the budget liaisons for the School Committee and Finance Committee. The surplus was attributed primarily to the nationwide disappearing workforce trend.

“We have had probably the worst year on record in my 20 years with unfilled vacant positions,” said Anne Gulati, assistant superintendent for finance and operations.

Nearly two-thirds of the surplus, or $1,923,243, occurred in the personnel category of the school budget. There was an additional $1.2 million surplus in the expenses segment, while capital spending came in $150,000 over budget, creating a net surplus of $3,005,460.

End-of-year school surpluses are not unusual, but are typically far less than $3 million. “This number really jumps out at you,” said Finance Committee Chair John Connolly. “It’s more than what we’re used to seeing.

“I know you spend money on good things. That’s not the problem,” he added. “It’s the amount of (surplus) money that is concerning.”

Gulati shared a seven-page memo that listed the various budget areas that contributed to the surplus. The largest single contributing factor? Positions from the top to the bottom of the school salary structure that experienced yearlong, persistent and pervasive vacancies.

In addition to higher than usual numbers of departures among teachers and administrators, the memo referred to Needham being plagued by the “nationwide labor shortage for teaching assistants, substitute (teachers), administrative support personnel, van/bus drivers and cafeteria staff.”

According to the memo, “By June 2023, net staffing levels in the school department had actually fallen by 16.38 FTE (full-time equivalent) from budget.”

Paying it forward

Two-thirds of the $3 million surplus will be rolled over to the FY24 school budget. Gulati outlined a proposal that would re-allocate $2 million for “identified unbudgeted needs in FY24 arising from student services requirements.” 

The additional $950,000 balance of the surplus will be returned to the town’s Free Cash line item and also be rolled over to FY24.

About $1 million would be allocated to a variety of enrollment needs, higher pay for substitute teachers, technology upgrades and digitized volumes of records. This includes $240,000 toward projects addressing theatrical rigging that was described as failing at the Newman, Pollard and Needham High auditoriums, and curtains in the buildings that are no longer fireproof.

Another nearly $1 million would go toward Special Education services, with $640,000 toward out-of-district tuitions and related transportation costs. An additional $300,000 would be used to create an Intensive Learning Center classroom at Newman Elementary School.

Gutekanst said the School Committee remains open to further dialogue with the Finance Committee liaisons, although the Finance Committee has no formal role in any budget action.

The School Committee is expected to act on the proposal at its July 14 meeting.

Its authority to reallocate the $3 million to the FY2024 budget rests in a feature of the state Special Education Circuit Breaker program that allows school districts to carry up to one year’s worth of special education reimbursements into the next fiscal year.

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