Enrollment rise puts pressure on Falmouth school budget

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FALMOUTH — With enrollment up by 50 students over last year, the School Department may be facing difficult budget decisions.

Last year, the $26.2 million school budget called for a 6.3 percent increase in property taxes. The increase was due primarily to the first interest payments on the bond for the new elementary school, and was the first increase in since 2007-08.

However, it did not take into account a large increase in enrollment. At the end of the 2010-2011 school year, the School Department predicted a total of 2,107 students would show up for the first day of school in September 2011, six more than the year before. Instead, 2,151 students walked through the doors. 

“About 27 percent of our classes are filled to capacity or beyond,” high school Principal Gregg Palmer told the School Board on Tuesday. 

He added that the school has had students eating lunch in the stairwells because there isn’t enough space in the lunch room.

The enrollment increase has also required last-minute hires, including an additional kindergarten teacher and two ed techs. With a predicted enrollment of 2,137 next year, the department may have to maintain those positions in next year’s budget.

“We’re so tight on class sizes that swings in just a few kids can put us on the tipping point,” Finance Director Dan O’Shea said.

At the middle school, some classes have more than 25 students, and at the high school, there are 192 students in the 10th grade, which will continue to put pressure on the school for the next two years, as those students progress through the system.

O’Shea said there are several factors that contributed to the enrollment increases, including some positive national publicity the district received from Forbes magazine, the new elementary school building and the addition of an all-day kindergarten program.

In addition to the general enrollment increases, the district also has 18 more special education students than last year and has two students in out-of-district placements – situations where it cannot provide the services required by special education students, and must pay for those  student to attend other schools – which were not included in this year’s budget.

For next year, the elementary school is also considering purchasing the newest edition of its math program, Everyday Math, which has been updated to align with the national Common Core standards. The school uses the 2005 edition of the Everyday Math program now. 

John Flaherty, one of the two elementary school principals, said the janitors are having trouble keeping up with the new, larger elementary school building.

“It’s a big building to manage,” he said.

The district reduced the number of janitors this year because of the consolidation of the Plummer-Motz and Lunt schools.

Additionally, Middle School Principal Sue Palfrey said the sixth-grade Apple G4 computers have reached the end of their usefulness and will have to be replaced next year.

“They’re old enough that they actually can’t take an updated operating system or (Web) browser,” she said. 

The board will begin serious budget discussions in February, after more solid revenue numbers come out of Augusta. An all-day school budget meeting and public forum will likely be held in April this year, instead of March, and the town referendum on the school budget will be held in June.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.

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