By Elizabeth F. McNamara
The School Committee Tuesday night again discussed the 2021 fiscal year budget, facing the hard realities of potential deep cuts in revenue but also the possibility of a nearly $1 million surplus this year, largely because of the closure of schools in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to a potential $1.1 million in layoffs and other staff reductions approved by the School Committee last week (read more HERE), the panel heard about another $350,000 on the chopping block, including from athletics (Cole sports programs), textbook purchases, field trips, and “other purchased services.”
None of this if final. That won’t come until the Town Council puts the gavel down on the town’s overall FY2021 budget, later this month. Once that happens – and officials are hoping for more clarity from the state before that time – the School Committee will then have to decide what combination of cuts it will need to balance its budget.
The $41.9 million budget approved by the School Committee in April was a $2.3 million increase over this year’s budget and it called for a $37.8 million appropriation from the town. The budget proposed by Town Manager Andrew Nota in May cut that appropriation by $800,000, to $37 million (still an increase of $652,000).
Meanwhile, the schools had been in line for a big jump in state education aid, to $3.4 million, up $700,000 from this year’s aid. Now, however, it’s unclear how many the schools will get in state aid. School Committeeman Jeff Dronzek said it could get cut as much as $300,000 to $500,000.
So, with the town’s cut of $800,000 and the possible state aid cut, that’s why Supt. Meyer has had to come up with a list of potential cuts.
You can find Meyer’s presentation from Tuesday (6/2) HERE.
On the smiley face side of the ledger is that $971,000 in anticipated surplus from this year. Meyer’s original budget already relied on using $500,000 from the surplus. The question for School Committee members Tuesday was, is using more surplus money appropriate? The answer seemed to be, in this very extreme circumstance, yes. Especially since at the end of 2021, the district will get around $1 million in a health care refund due to a switch in carriers this past year. So, the theory goes, using surplus this year could be offset by the health care refund next year.
Dronzek said the problem with that is it might only be pushing the pain forward a year. But with so many unknowns, including how long the economy – and along with that, the state and local economy – might be down, and how much more money the federal government might send the state’s way.
After the School Committee had its say, a number of community members spoke in public comment. Supporters of music, librarians and special education all spoke of their frustration that these categories were always the first to be cut. Among the cuts proposed last Friday were two library media specialist, the chorus teacher at EGHS, and 6 special education-related positions.
“I can’t really believe we are in the position again,” said Beth Gorter, library media specialist at Hanaford. “What I do not understand is why it is always – always – library and music that is first on the chopping block? … What else can we do to prove our worth?”
“The things we are cutting here are a part of their actual teaching and learning,” said Nicole Bucka, speaking on behalf of the Special Ed Advisory Committee,
Several high school students spoke as well, urging the retention of the librarian, chorus and the senior project coordinator.
Parent Jim Siedliski and a couple of the students urged the School Committee to lean on the community for help. “There are a lot of people out here who support you … and there are people here who are willing and able to help you in any capacity,” Siedliski said.
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