Faced with significant cost-hikes in health insurance and pension obligations, the Blackstone Valley Vocational Regional School District initiated aggressive measures to decrease its proposed annual budget, including adoption of a new healthcare option, acquisition of more than $1 million in additional state grants, and reduction in non-instructional full-time staff.
The District School Committee formally approved its fiscal year 2017 (FY17) budget request at its regular meeting on March 3, 2016, following months of number crunching, cutting, and downsizing to offset the drastic impact of healthcare and retiree benefits. The Committee first examined the budget’s overall healthcare costs, which came in at an initial increase of 20 percent, or $536,000 higher than the prior year, driven by changes in premium rates and the number of subscribers. That increase was ultimately lowered to nearly 15 percent after the District worked with its insurance brokers to negotiate a more favorable rate on existing plans and impact bargained with the BVT Teachers Association to offer a new low-premium/high-deductible health insurance option.
“The cost of health benefits is a challenge faced by school districts and municipalities across the state, if not the nation,” commented Superintendent-Director Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick. “I commend the School Committee and BVT Teachers Association for sitting down and working together to understand all the moving parts and benefits of this new plan, which is now one of three viable options available to our system’s staff.”
Valley Tech’s proposed budget was further shielded from the impact of healthcare and pension costs by the acquisition of more than $1.02 million in state grants for capital improvements and purchases. Approval of a $619,000 reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority allowed the school to self-fund a major roof repair project without asking its district-towns for additional dollars. A $407,000 grant from Governor Charlie Baker’s Workforce Skills Capital Grant Program will purchase cutting-edge equipment for four Valley Tech programs, enabling the school to further reduce the FY17 budget’s bottom line by removing funds for vital capital equipment purchases.
The Committee also reduced staffing patterns by 3.5 full-time positions while preserving the quality of instruction, saved on contracted services by utilizing staff and student skills on internal improvement projects, and garnered temporary relief on retroactive billing of non-educator pension obligations. Finally, in an effort to further reduce the budget’s impact on member-towns’ assessments, the BVT School Committee voted to supplement the operational blueprint with $250,000 in available reserve funds.
Fitzpatrick noted that approval of the FY17 budget request marks the seventh consecutive year in which Valley Tech has presented an annual budgetary increase of 3 percent or less.
“Limiting expenditures to annual increases no greater than 3 percent is an especially impressive feat given that our system is one of only a few across the Commonwealth which have seen a steady increase in the number of students served over that same time period,” Fitzpatrick said.
Following School Committee approval, the proposed Blackstone Valley Tech FY17 budget totaling $21,956,739 will be considered this spring by town meeting voters throughout the school’s 13-town district. Like last year, Valley Tech officials are optimistic the conservative plan will receive unanimous approval.
“The goal every year is to create a budget that advances Valley Tech’s ability to train the future workforce while remaining sensitive to the financial challenges we share with our member towns,” said School Committee Chairman Joseph M. Hall of Bellingham. “Our district-towns’ leaders have identified what they consider a manageable percentage-increase in their Valley Tech assessments, and we’ve worked hard to once again produce a plan within that range.”
Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School serves the towns of Bellingham, Blackstone, Douglas, Grafton, Hopedale, Mendon, Milford, Millbury, Millville, Northbridge, Sutton, Upton and Uxbridge. Located in the heart of the Blackstone Valley, Blackstone Valley Tech creates a positive learning community that prepares students for personal and professional success in an internationally competitive society through a fusion of rigorous vocational, technical, and academic skills. The school’s website is www.valleytech.k12.ma.us.