Cost of new bus dominates Yarmouth school budget discussion

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YARMOUTH — The School Committee presented a draft budget worth nearly $21.25 million, but much of the discussion at a March 27 Town Council meeting revolved around a $100,000 school bus.

The budget, adopted by the School Committee on March 13, represents a 2.17-percent increase over this year. It features no new programs and two fewer positions than last year. It includes cuts to furniture, technology and books, and maintains class sizes in the committee’s target range.

A plan to outsource custodial services will save $50,000, said Tim Wheaton, vice chair of the School Committee, who gave the presentation.

More than 79 percent of the budget would go to employee salaries and benefits.

The budget does not include funds for the creation of a strategic plan or the replacement of the 22-year-old roof at Harrison Middle School, both of which are goals of the School Committee, Wheaton said. He estimated the roof replacement, which will need to come in the next couple years, would cost between $300,000 and $400,000.

“I can assure the public, the council’s message of fiscal discipline has been sent very loudly and clearly and has been received, so there’s no ambiguity around that,” Wheaton said.

Some members of the public felt they hadn’t heard it loudly enough.

“We have to separate out the needs from the wants,” said Bruce Soule, a former School Committee member, during public comment. “No department has the right to think they can increase spending because there’s more money in the till.”

Wheaton spent several minutes justifying the committee’s plan to purchase a new $100,000 school bus, calling it an unavoidable cost.

“We have a 17-year-old bus that has been maintained well, but is at the end of its useful life, and right behind it is a 14-year-old bus that will need to be replaced at a future date,” Wheaton said.

The School Committee considered leasing the bus over a period of five or six years, Wheaton said, but decided that purchasing would save roughly $7,500 and keep the school from financing several buses simultaneously in years to come.

However, financing the bus over multiple years would produce a smaller overall budget increase for fiscal year 2015 – roughly 1.8 percent instead of 2.17 percent – and that was a sticking point for several of those in attendance, including Councilor James MacLeod.

After more discussion, Council Chairman Steve Woods reminded everyone that the council sets the school budget, but the committee decides how to spend it.

The council voted unanimously to receive the draft budget. Public hearings will follow in April and May.

Dam removal

In other business, the council directed Town Manager Nat Tupper to convene a group of stakeholders to study the potential removal of the Bridge Street dam. Based on that group’s work, Tupper is to present to the Town Council by April 2015 a directional report featuring a “reasonable scope of service” with regard to dam removal.

A page-long resolution, approved unanimously, states the council continues to be interested in investigating the removal of the dam and making improvements to the fish ladder at the Elm Street dam, while recognizing that important questions have been raised by studies and public comments about the potential economic and environmental risks associated with dam removal.

The group of stakeholders will not have authority to begin a permitting or construction process. It will simply make a recommendation to the Town Council.

The resolution commits no town funding for the project, nor does it state that there will never be a town expenditure for dam removal.

“We’re going to work for the next year to determine what are the important questions, and then the council can decide whether it wants to continue down that road,” Tupper said.

The resolution will keep any dam removal activity off the table until after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredges the Royal River harbor, which is expected to take place this fall.

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @brendantwist.