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Salem - The Board of Education on Tuesday heard first from Superintendent Joseph Onofrio, who proposed a 2014-15 budget with a 4.96 percent increase over the current budget, and then from members of the Board of Finance, who asked the school board to bring that increase down to zero.
"I know it's not a pretty (message) and I know it's not going to be an easy one," said Board of Finance Chairman T.J. Butcher.
He told the school board that the Board of Finance agreed unanimously to request a flat budget from the Board of Education, which makes up 73 percent of the town's overall budget.
If the school board is unable to produce a flat budget, the finance board expects to hear a rationale for the increases, added Butcher.
Butcher said the town is expecting both the grand list and revenue to be flat, which "puts us in a very difficult situation." Any increase from the 2013-14 budget will result in tax increases, he said.
Board of Education Chairman Stephen Buck didn't promise a flat budget but was receptive to Butcher's request.
"We hear what you're saying," said Buck. He told Butcher he would present arguments to support the board's expenditures, emphasizing that the Board of Education has a responsibility to advocate for the needs of Salem students.
Last year, the district reduced the school's staffing by the equivalent of 3.4 full-time employees to compensate for budget cuts imposed by the Board of Finance. The school board decided to spread the cuts among 12 certified staff members rather than lay off any employees.
That situation "created a lot of stress for a lot of people" and had quite an impact on the school community, said Buck.
Buck asked Board of Education members to email any questions about the budget to the superintendent, who will prepare answers for the board's Jan. 21 meeting. The school board plans to approve a budget by their Feb. 3 meeting, which they will then present to the Board of Finance for approval.
Onofrio said his $10,865,657 proposal had already been cut down from what the staff requested, which would have meant an increase of 7.75 percent.
Some of the proposed increases are out of Onofrio's hands, such as the increased tuition for out-of-district special education. That cost increased from $187,954 to $588,538 because the school expects an additional seven special education students in the coming year. Special education consulting and evaluation costs also increased.
The proposed budget also includes an additional $46,300 for curriculum and textbook updates, including funding for new math and science programs for grades 6, 7 and 8, and new Spanish textbooks.
The budget also includes funding for new textbooks, computers and desks and chairs.
"When we have to make cuts, we make them," said Onofrio, who hopes the Board of Education and Board of Finance will make small cuts across several areas but preserve staffing levels and the computer upgrades.
"It's going to be tough," he said. "We worked hard to get (the budget) to where it is."