Huge questions remain, on state aid and the cost to reopen schools.

By Elizabeth F. McNamara

The School Committee approved a final version of its FY2021 budget Thursday night in a 6-1 vote, with Matt Plain casting the lone vote. Passage of the $42.1 million budget followed the Town Council’s decision June 22 to give the schools $431,000 more than the town’s original budget had offered. 

Supt. Alexis Meyer laid out her plan for restoring most of the layoffs and some of the displacements proposed earlier this month, including two library media specialists, chorus at the EGHS, one special ed teacher, and the district’s behavior specialist. Meyer also added an elementary level teacher to the budget, in anticipation of higher enrollment, and restored the senior project coordinator position. 

Not everything made it back, most significantly the strategic mentoring program. 

“The next item on this list is not one I take any pleasure in listing. In fact, I serve as a mentor in this district,” Meyer said. She explained her reasoning this way: “Right now, it would be difficult to implement that program in person. It doesn’t mean this is definite. Maybe there will be other options.”

In addition, there was one special education position that was not restored and a part-time psychologist position was also cut*.

Councilor Matt Plain asked if the district’s Special Education Advisory Committee had been consulted on that decision. Meyer said while she had been talking with a representative of the committee, she had not run this final version of the budget past the SEAC.

“There’s no decision that would be made by myself or the administrative council that didn’t assure that all students were provided with their programmatic needs,” Meyer said.

“Reducing our programmatic offerings in special education, that’s something that should go through our local advisory committee,” Plain said. He said the SEAC needed to be consulted – that SEACs are mandated by state law for that very reason. “I’m not comfortable without it going through that process. I trust the team and I trust Mrs. Meyer but we have that committee there to do that work and to weigh in on things,” he said. 

Councilor Jeff Dronzek said he was glad the budget did not rely on a potential 2020 surplus (if there is a surplus, it is expected to be small). “It leaves room to make adjustments as needed for some of these other positions if we do need them….This is the right ways to do things in a situation like this. It leaves flexibility and we need some flexibility,” he said. “The state’s not going to come through with anything fantastic for us, that’s for sure.” 

Committeewoman Alyson Powell said she was really glad positions had been saved. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever done anything harder than responding to all the people in the community who were hoping we were not going to have to cut these positions,” she said. Powell did raise the issue of reopening costs, since the budget does not include any funding to cover reopening expenses.

“I’m just not sure … what we are going to do when we find out in a couple of weeks what the costs of reopening are and where we’re supposed to get that money,” she said. “It has to come from somewhere and we don’t know if we’re going to get reimbursed for it.” 

Meyer said the district had $500,000 in unrestricted surplus – not that she wanted to use it but it was there. In addition, she said, the town was well aware of the situation and would be working with the district. Finally, Meyer said, she had outlined $300,000 in additional cuts, if needed, including some to athletics. 

When it came to the vote, everyone except Plain supported the budget plan. Plain said later he voted no because of the failure to consult the Special Ed Advisory Committee.

After the vote, Chairwoman Carolyn Mark noted the progress that had been made. 

“We were never going to be in a perfect place, but we’re in a better position today than we were the last time we met,” she said.

The new fiscal year begins Wednesday, July 1.

*This article when originally posted did not include mention of the part-time psychologist being cut. We regret the omission. 


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