NORTH ADAMS — After years of tight budgets, North Adams Public Schools officials are beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel.
The newly proposed budget for the coming year seems free of steep cuts — and even expands some services.
Though he described the budget as "straightforward" and "fairly lean," Superintendent James Montepare appeared optimistic about the district's outlook as he introduced the budget to the School Committee's Finance and Facilities Subcommittee.
The $16.74 million proposed fiscal 2017 budget represents a 3.52 percent increase over the previous year's spending plan and, unlike recent years, does not include ominous warnings about potentially steep reductions in staff. The increase to the city will be 2 percent, or just over $325,000.
"It was still a difficult year but I feel we were able to get to all services," Montepare said.
Unlike last year, however, the budget draws on $250,000 from the district's school choice reserve account. The balance of the reserves has dropped to about $750,000 after the committee authorized $97,000 for the purchase of new computers last month.
Montepare noted the account is replenished with $250,000 to $290,000 every year when students choice into the district. By the end of next school year, he said, the balance should return to about $750,000.
The state budget, which is still being negotiated in Boston, could result in slightly higher than anticipated funding, Montepare noted. In that case, the amount of school choice money used to balance the budget would likely decrease,
The reserve funding won't be used for one-time capital expenses, as is often the case, but will instead apply to general operating expenses. Montepare said there was "no other way" to craft the budget.
"Everything in this budget is with a purpose," Montepare said.
The budget does include the reduction, through attrition, of a foreign language teacher and 1.5 full-time equivalent science positions at Drury High School. But it adds an English language learning teacher and the district has begun developing an athletic director position that currently pays a stipend but that Montepare hopes will become full-time in the future.
The district's participation in sports, intramural and other exploratory arts programs has declined as these programs have been "squeezed out" by testing and "academic well being," Montepare said. "I have issue with all of that. I think it's important that we do everything we can to provide active engagement."
The budget also adds eight full-time substitutes, enough for two per building in the district. While they will pay the substitutes more per day as full-time employees, Montepare said there is typically a need for at least that many on any given day.
The supplies budget has also seen a boost of about $7,000 for each district building for the first time in recent memory, Montepare said.
Subcommittee Chairman Mark Moulton said it appeared to be a "sound budget."
After a lengthy round of questions that ranged from the supplies budget to the school choice funding process, the committee voted unanimously to recommend the budget to the full School Committee for further review on Tuesday.
Contact Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376.