A debate over the school budget is looming in Winchester, with a nearly $800,000 gap between the district’s fiscal 2013 spending plan and what town manager Richard C. Howard is offering.
Howard on Wednesday submitted a budget proposal to the Finance Committee that calls for a 5.2 percent, or $1.8 million, increase in school spending over the current year.
While that increase would roughly provide what the district needs to maintain services, the increase is $781,146 below what the School Committee requested. The committee’s budget proposal, approved on Jan. 10, calls for a 7.4 percent, or $2.6 million, increase.
School Committee chairman Christopher Linskey said his panel plans to push for its budget figure.
“Our position as a School Committee is that it’s not over yet,’’ he said, calling Howard’s proposal just a step in the overall process.
Linskey said committee members hope that higher-than-anticipated state aid or other revenue could materialize in the coming weeks and boost the school budget. He said it also is possible that the Finance Committee, or Town Meeting, which convenes March 27, could favor allotting more money to the schools.
Linskey said there is a possibility that an override question could be put before voters to fund some or all of the difference between the School Committee’s and town manager’s figures.
“The process has to take some more steps,’’ he said.
Howard, the longtime former Malden mayor who assumed his Winchester job in January, said he did not regard the School Committee’s proposal as excessive. But he said the increase the committee seeks would not fit within the major goals he set for this year’s budget.
One of those goals is to reduce Winchester’s reliance on free cash in the budget, a step Howard called a sound fiscal practice. Noting that the town had applied $1.6 million in free cash to the current year’s budget, Howard said he lowered that amount to $930,000 this year, allowing the town to put more money into stabilization accounts.
He said the second key goal was to produced a budget that avoided an override of Proposition 2 1/2, the state law limiting the annual growth of property taxes.
Howard said the increase he is proposing for the schools still would allow the district to cover contracted pay increases for union employees and some additional costs related to state mandates governing special education and English language learner instruction.
Linskey said the School Committee developed its budget based on what the department’s leadership team identified as necessary to move the schools forward.
“Over the past couple of years since the most recent economic downturn hit us, the schools have worked cooperatively with the town to make due,’’ Linskey said.
But Linskey said to keep up with escalating costs and continue to see academic progress, the budget needs to grow.
“We want to make sure we are addressing our needs and our needs do not always fit within a [specified] level of funding,’’ he said.
While the town rejected a $1.44 million override for the schools and general government last spring, Linskey said the question of whether to raise taxes for the schools is one the community will have to face again, if not this year, in a subsequent year.
“We need to have that discussion,’’ he said. “We will try to make the community understand that if there is no override, the following things will not be funded.’’
School Superintendent William McAlduff said indications are that an override would be needed to adopt the full school budget this year, though, but he added: “If the town can fund our budget request without doing an override, that would be wonderful.’’
McAlduff acknowledged that the spending increase sought by the School Department is greater than the 4.8 percent rise projected in the town’s three-year budget plan that was updated last year by the Board of Selectmen, the Finance Committee, and the School Committee.
But he said a number of factors have led to higher-than-expected increases, including the rising costs of special education.
Included is the need to hire the equivalent of two full-time assistant principals to help implement a new state-mandated teacher evaluation system.
McAlduff said the schools also need to bolster student support services by hiring of the equivalent of two elementary school psychologists as well as part-time clinical staff at Winchester High School.