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January 2016

The Budget Process

Happy New Year! We hope you all enjoyed the holidays and are looking forward to 2016!

The beginning of the calendar year is a very busy time for a school district as we are knee-deep in creating the 2016- 2017 school budget. Consider this: if you were asked to predict how much money you were going to spend 20 months from now, could you do it? That’s the challenge that all school districts and municipalities face each year, since that’s the timeframe from when we start to put the budget together to the time the last dollar from that budget is expended. And like each of you, when you put your household budgets together, there are a wide variety of unknowns we have to estimate. What turnover will we have in our staff? Will items break that need to be repaired or replaced? Will there be unexpected price increases? Will the State or Federal government create new laws that impose new unfunded mandates on us?

In Plymouth, our budget process actually started in October with building principals and Central Office staff working with district coordinators, teachers and other staff to build budgets for their areas of responsibility. Once those budgets were submitted, there were several hours of discussion among the administrators to further refine the budget into the initial presentation that will be shared with the Board of Education on January 13. After that initial presentation, there will be more detailed budget workshops on the nights of January 20 and January 27, and on February 3 if needed. All of those reviews will lead up to the Board of Education’s adoption of a budget at their February 10 meeting. From there, the Board of Finance will review the budget on March 17, and following any adjustments made by that Board, the Board of Education budget will be voted on at referendum as part of the overall Town Budget. So at a minimum, it’s roughly a six month process to fully develop the budget; quite an effort, but one critical to allocating scarce resources to best enable the school district’s mission of challenging, inspiring, and preparing all students.

This year, we challenged all our administrators to work with a concept called zero-based budgeting. As that name implies, at its core, zero-based budgeting means that every line of the budget is reset to $0, and the budget is then built up from that level. Typically, that meanslooking at factors like enrollment and class schedules to determine what staffing levels are needed – or no longer needed. Instead of just adding a small percentage to last year’s budgeted number, supplies and other commodities get budgeted based on actual consumption and known price changes, up or down. We have ongoing discussions with vendors throughout the year to identify more cost effective ways to do things than we have done in the past. And when it’s appropriate, we engage the expertise of third parties, such as our benefits consultant, to get us the best possible pricing for our benefits packages.

Once the base budget has been built – effectively, what it would take to ‘turn the lights on’ in the District on the first day of school – we then look at any additional investments we want to make in our students and to better execute on our educational mission. As an example, our current budget proposal includes new funds for technology and books that greatly enhance our delivery of Reader’s Workshop to our elementary school students, along with two tutors at each school. Another example is our investment in an after school program for those students needing additional assistance at the middle school. And, although it’s not something that a student would typically be impacted by day-to-day, we also have an obligation to address some of our aging infrastructure, including a request for a small dump truck to replace a truck that was retired from service this year.

Zero-based budgeting also challenges all participants to scour the budget and identify any savings that can be harvested. As part of the ongoing discussions, you’ll hear us discuss staffing changes, lower heating oil, natural gas and diesel costs, some of which is being purchased through joint bids with other towns. And, we’re anticipating some significant electricity savings next year, as all four of our major solar energy projects are expected to be online by the time this article is published.

As you can probably sense at this point, there’s a significant effort that goes into creating the budget each year. We strive to be good stewards of your tax dollars, and as transparent as possible in both how the budget is created and how we spend money during the school year. We will be publishing budget materials to our district website, and we encourage all of you to come out and learn about the school budget in the public presentations and workshops that will be taking place during January, February and March.

Again, we wish you happy, safe and healthy New Year, and thank you for your support of Plymouth Schools!

By Dr. Martin Semmel,

Superintendent of Schools

Plymouth, CT

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