School Committee discusses budget with town leaders

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The School Committee began its hybrid meeting Thursday night with a joint session with the Select Board and the Appropriation Committee to discuss the Fiscal Year 2023 school budget requests.

“We really do have a very good idea of where we stand right now,” Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh explained, noting that School Department meetings with the Select Board and the Appropriation Committee have taken place since September in a “very collaborative” process.

She noted that when she started the school budget process, the number recommended by the Select Board was “more conservative than what the Hopkinton Public Schools have experienced over the past couple of years.” However, the budget requests by schools and departments during their presentations have been modest while meeting the educational, behavioral and socio-emotional needs of all students during a time when the student population is increasing.

The superintendent gave an overview of last year’s budget. Right now, there are 4,026 students in the school system, while the budget had been projected for 3,998. The preschool number is continuing to rise above the anticipated number of 78 students; 86 currently are enrolled and more are expected. Because of this increase, the budget is calling for an additional preschool classroom.

Finance Director Susan Rothermich explained that the FY23 operating budget of $57,116,428 showed a 5.8 percent increase from the previous year of almost $3,150,000.

“We do recognize that this is above the guidance that was given by the Select Board and the town manager,” she said. “However, this is where we are at this time.”

The number of English language learner (ELL) students has increased this year, Cavanaugh said. She noted that the average caseload per teacher is 30, which she described as “very high.” At Marathon School, there are 127 ELL students, while at Elmwood there are 80. Hopkins has 30 ELL students. District-wide, this accounts for 6.9 percent of the total population, where in 2014-15, the percentage was only 1.4 percent, or 48 students. This illustrates the budgetary need for more English as a second or other language (ESOL) students.

Out-of-district tuition and contracted services increased by $1.094 million, while the transportation increase was $73,260 for one bus. This was offset by $358,000 in circuit breaker funds. There were no budgetary increases requested for instructional program enhancements or administrative support of facility enhancements.

Rothermich noted that a special education reserve fund could be created to accommodate for unexpected shifts in this population. The School Committee voted for this a few years ago. The Select Board and Town Meeting would need to vote on its creation, and Town Meeting then would have to approve the funding.

“Once this fund is established, appropriations out of the reserve fund could be made by a majority vote of the School Committee and the Select Board,” she explained.

Capital requests detailed at a previous meeting amounted to $7,222,000 but would be offset by a $6,287,000 in solar battery revenue offset that would pay for its purchase, leaving a projected taxpayer cost of $935,000.

One unknown was the amount for the roof project for Hopkins and the middle school. Due to a supply chain issue, it has been difficult to secure the materials.

Select Board Chair Irfan Nasrullah asked when solar energy credit would be expected to be generated from the investment in solar energy.

“How long do we expect that to take before we start making the gravy?” he asked.

Rothermich said there are multiple projects, but for the middle school they would be “right side up in eight years.” It would take seven years for Hopkins, she added. But the length of time would depend upon the interest rate on the debt service.

Included in the overall budget presentation were the elementary school requests, which were presented later in the meeting.

Marathon Principal Lauren Dubeau said she had no additional staffing requests for the general population. The population will remain consistent.

“The need for us is with the preschool program,” she explained, as it will be 90 students by the end of January. Money for supplies is needed for items such as dry erase markers and different types of paper.

Many of these students require special education, she added. But early intervention should help those needs not to be continued in later grades.

She also talked about the expansion, which is in the design phase.

“The goal is to break ground at the end of this school year,” she said, with the addition taking one year to be constructed.

Elmwood Principal Anne Carver said the only personnel request she had was to add 0.1 to a current 0.9 position to have a full-time wellness teacher. The expenses were slightly below last year. She also asked for $5,000 to fund a March Madness event of purchasing 15 nonfiction hardcover books. Teachers would have a March Madness-style ranking of the 15 books that students would read and rate via a vote.

Hopkins Principal Vanessa Bilello said her expenses “are level funded across the board.”

Member Amanda Fargiano thanked all three principals for their diligence in keeping their requests so low.

COVID-19 cases rise

Cavanaugh said that there has been an uptick at Marathon and particularly Elmwood in students participating in the Test and Stay program because they displayed symptoms.

“I want to be fully transparent and say that just yesterday we were sending letters to the parents at Elmwood saying even though we have kids who are testing positive, we haven’t seen in-school transmission. Currently we have a classroom where there are three positive children.”

There were no positive students tested the day of the meeting, she added.

Upper Charles Trail Committee provides update

Jane Moran, chair of the Upper Charles Trails Committee, asked for the support of the School Committee in constructing the center portion of the town’s portion of the trail system, Sections 5 and 6, that is being proposed to go through the Irvine-Todaro property on Hayden Rowe Street.

“In our minds, we want to make this the best possible trail possible,” she said, stressing this is at the beginning of the process. “We feel that by partnering collectively with all of the town boards and committees in town, by coming together as a collective group we can probably make this happen.”

A meeting on this topic was held the previous evening, where concerns about traffic, unknown people crossing onto school property, and safety were expressed.
Town Engineer Dave Daltorio said the proposed segments of the trail would go along the Marathon School property and the Irvine-Todaro site. That land potentially could be used for a new elementary school building to replace Elmwood, and a response from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to a proposal is expected soon. However, the UCTC had been instructed that the trail should mainly use town-owned property, which made this property attractive.

Daltorio explained that this property was not considered originally. Alternatives were looked at, but easements would have been required.

“I’m concerned as a member of the ESBC2 [Elmwood School Building Committee 2] and School Committee about not setting any expectations on other uses of the Todaro property other than the school,” he said. “I know how hard it was to find space for the Marathon School. It will be equally difficult to find space for whatever the Elmwood School project becomes.”

Fargiano echoed this concern, but she wondered about the timing.

Regarding the timing, Daltorio said there will be a request for design funding for preliminary and final designs for Segments 5 and 6 at Town Meeting. The proposed trail will be on no-build areas.

Moran described the proposed trail portion as a “school campus connector.”

Fargiano reiterated the safety concern regarding traffic, particularly during school dismissal.