School Committee approves reduced budget

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As the school community awaits a reentry plan from the state education department for the upcoming school year, School Committee members at their June 4 meeting unanimously approved a new budget that increases spending by 6.6 percent over the current budget.

The new budget of $51,206,402 for fiscal year 2021 reflects a decrease of about $780,000 from the budget approved by members of the School Committee and Select Board on March 10, days before the COVID-19 crisis closed the schools, damaged the economy and changed the town’s overall fiscal situation.

That budget had already been reduced by about $300,000 from the School Committee’s original request before making cuts in March.

The significant increases in spending from previous years had been requested to offset growing student population.

In creating the most recent, post-COVID-19 budget, the emphasis was on classroom needs and maintaining quality of education, superintendent Carol Cavanaugh said.

“These are really challenging times,” she said. Making the cuts was not easy, she said, but the district has been “very resourceful” in creating the new budget, she said.

Committee member Amanda Fargiano was initially hesitant to approve the budget, questioning whether the COVID-19 crisis could result in additional expenses and wondering whether more information would make things clearer in the near future. School finance director Susan Rothermich said that funding for remote learning costs and other expenses related to COVID-19 would likely be covered by the CARES Act federal funding.

The schools need a budget approved by June 30 to allow the fiscal year 2021 budget to be implemented, Rothermich said.

With Town Meeting postponed until September, the schools will be required to implement “one-twelfth budgeting,” with expenses covered on a monthly basis based on the fiscal year 2021 budget approved by the School Committee until Town Meeting can accept the overall budget, Rothermich said.

If no budget is approved by June 30, the budgeting would be based on the fiscal year 2020 and new hires contained in the fiscal year 2021 budget would not go through, Rothermich said.

“We can’t leave the district hanging,” committee member Jen Devlin said of her approval vote, even as she expressed concerns about the budget variables.

Uncertainty likely will be part of the school situation for quite a while, committee member Meg Tyler said, noting, “I think that’s where we’re going to be for the next year.”.

The budget was also bolstered by an increase of other funding sources, including $900,000 from the Legacy Farms Host Community Agreement and free cash not used for capital projects.

In other matters, Cavanaugh said that Jeffrey Riley, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, is expected to announce a reentry plan for the state’s schools on June 15. She anticipates the recommendation will “land in the middle” between requiring complete remote learning and providing full-time in-school education.

School personnel have walked through all six buildings to review needs for shields, taping and signage and to determine methods to maintain social distancing.

“We plan to open our doors in a way we’re directed to,” she said, adding that if individual school districts prefer a different approach than the state determines, they will be allowed to make a “compelling argument” for their decision.

Also at the June 4 meeting, the committee gave Cavanaugh a rating of “exemplary” in her annual performance evaluation. She was evaluated as exemplary at instructional leadership and family and community engagement and proficient in management and operation and professional culture.

Fargiano noted that statewide guidelines encourage superintendents to receive a rating of proficient. “We do not lightly assign” the exemplary rating, she said. “We did it with a lot of thought.”

School Committee member Nancy Cavanaugh said the superintendent possesses “outstanding qualities that brought us through difficult times.” Committee members cited her calm demeanor through a crisis, including the COVID-19 situation that seriously changed how education is delivered, and praised a work ethic Cavanaugh described as unsurpassed by anyone she knows.

“She makes every student feel seen, heard, protected and respected,” Tyler said. “I don’t think a superintendent can do better than that.”

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