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School Committee hears more department budget requests, talks Hopkins addition

by | Nov 3, 2023 | Education, Featured: Education

Budget presentations before the School Committee continued Thursday, with student services and technology taking center stage.

Director of Student Services Abigail Hanscom spoke about the fiscal year 2025 preliminary budget for that department, noting the $15,319,189 reflects a 4.88% increase from last year.

The change is comprised of contractual salary increases totaling $688,630, she said, while total expenses are “holding steady” because of a larger circuit breaker reimbursement last year following a 14% increase in out-of-district tuitions.

Hanscom explained that the preschool revolving fund and the IDEA grants would fund positions approved last fiscal year such as a .5 (full-time equivalent) intensive special education teacher and 1.0 ABA (applied behavior analysis) paraprofessional at Elmwood, a 1.0 paraprofessional at Hopkins and 3.0 ABA paraprofessionals at Marathon. These positions carry over into FY25.

Additionally, she said new positions requested are a 1.0 severe/intensive special education teacher at the high school and the same position at the middle school; a 1.0 moderate special education teacher at the middle school; and a .3 clerical position.

The proposed budget shows an increase of $99,249 in transportation.

Hanscom said the SPED reserve fund covered $1,094,024 in tuition in FY24, and the same amount is planned in FY25. The tuition amount will be offset by the state circuit breaker program in the amount of $1.7 million, an increase of $612,933 from last year.

Hanscom said she would like to see certification training in safety care for 50 personnel moved from the fall to the summer of 2024 so that trained personnel will be available at the start of the school year. Projected cost is $12,500.

She asked to create a teacher training intern program with a local university to address the hiring environment for special educators and potentially provide a bachelor’s degree path for paraprofessionals.

Technology requests explained

Director of Technology Ashoke Ghosh spoke on technology, saying his proposed budget has a $334,257 increase (13.9%) over FY24.

He said the technology budget’s priorities include maintaining core operating systems and infrastructure, rebuilding staff needs in data services and technical support, and supporting instructional technology and software needs so that teachers and students have access to digital resources to improve differentiated instruction and strengthen engagement.

The increase in the first area is because of increased enrollment, inflationary costs and security improvements, said Ghosh.

The largest increase in FY25 is in the contracted services account, which supports systems like PowerSchool, he added.

Over the past five years, the Technology Department has been cut by 3.4 full-time tech integration teachers and a webmaster. (At the last meeting, the board approved the return of that position, according to Ghosh.)

He said the department requested a full-time technician and a .4 data support/system administration position that were not recommended for funding because of town-wide budget constraints.

In addition to maintaining core equipment in classrooms like LCD projectors, document cameras and student devices, the proposed budget also includes additional software licenses to support new students and classrooms that require digital curriculum.

The requested budget’s largest increase would cover new leases for elementary-level teachers and Chromebooks for the middle school, he said.

Capital plan moves forward

With a deadline of midnight, the committee voted to approve a capital plan for FY25 and send it on to the town manager for review.

The plan, totaling $46,170,000, includes the Hopkins School addition ticket item that had a concept budget of $43,940,000, the amount that is listed. However, Director of Finance/Assistant Superintendent Susan Rothermich said an initial project cost estimate came in at $46,226,723 — reflecting an increase in scope for things like geothermal energy, Loop Road paving close to the building, a walking track around playing fields and more.

Rothermich said the figure excludes $3 million approved at Annual Town Meeting for the current design phase. It does not include potential rebates from MassSave or the Inflation Reduction Act, she noted.

The higher figure has not been discussed yet in detail with the designers and owner’s project manager to see where changes were made between the concept number and new estimate, she said.

“I get nervous bringing another $46 million to the town,” said member Holly Morand. “It’s going to be difficult.” She added that the plan items are all “important and necessary.”

Unlike the proposed Elmwood School replacement project, the Hopkins addition project is not eligible for any reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA).

With that in mind, chair Nancy Cavanaugh said she hoped that rebates and other decisions could reduce the number.

“The way we made choices on specific materials to use at Elmwood presumably can be made at Hopkins to bring the numbers down to something that seems more doable,” Cavanaugh said.

“A lot of people are concerned balancing off with people who are concerned about what we are going to do with students about enrollment if we are not able to add capacity,” she said.

Cavanaugh said she felt it would be a good idea to form a building committee to work on the Hopkins addition project.

“Renovations are crazy expensive,” noted vice chair Amanda Fargiano. She said they had been watching Hopkins “in terms of being crunched” since 2019. Common spaces like the gym and cafeteria (addressed in the proposed project) are insufficient to handle the numbers now, Fargiano said.

“If Elmwood fails, this is the reality we’d face times three,” she added.

Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh clarified that whether housing Grades 4-5 or Grades 5-6 (with an Elmwood project approval), Hopkins School still would have this spacing situation.

“Every square inch is being used as efficiently as it can. It’s not sustainable,” Morand said.

Other capital items on the list include replacement of a maintenance vehicle ($80,000); year two of a technology replacement project districtwide ($100,000); heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC) work, including replacing three out of nine rooftop units at Hopkins ($700,000); design and engineering for the track and Field 3 ($350,000); and Marathon playground project ($1 million).

Rothermich noted that an application had been submitted for a Community Preservation grant for the Marathon playground. She is hoping that fundraising also will help with that expense.

She noted that the Hopkins addition and HVAC work may be connected if some of the units get replaced, depending on how far they can bring piping in the design. Rothermich said the tie-in to a newer system would be “an all-green system.”

Wrestling coach, pilot volleyball program approved

In other business, the School Committee approved:

— A $4,100 donation from The 200 Foundation for 10 scholarships to attend Nature’s Classroom.

— The reallocation of $4,950 from clubs no longer running at the high school to fund newly created ones. The committee approved an additional $3,850 to cover seven established clubs.

— The addition of a dedicated junior varsity wrestling coach, because the number of participants created a need for a JV team. Coach Corey Mills spoke about the need for this position.

— A pilot boys volleyball program to take place this spring. The athletic department put out a survey and found out there is enough interest (34 students in Grades 9-12) to start a team. Coaches will be paid from the user fees.

Athletic director Rick Andrade noted in his request he was looking to cover the cost of a head coach and assistant coach. He said student-athletes’ families will cover transportation, and team members would use basketball uniforms in the short term.

Andrade expects the number of participants to increase if the program gets started this year. In his request, he noted equipment costs including net systems, balls, a scorers table, scorebooks, and more, and these items would be usable in programs for both boys and girls.

School committee member Susan Stephenson asked about liability should something happen when parents or students transport themselves to events. Andrade said parents sign a waiver form/permission slip that has been reviewed by a lawyer.

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