School Committee works to trim budget due to pandemic

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The Hopkinton school budget has been tentatively pared down by $780,316 from the amount supported by the School Committee and Select Board two months ago, in the wake of the economic upheaval from the COVID-19 crisis.

The new proposed budget totals $51,206,402, for an increase of 6.6 percent over the current budget. The budget approved in March totaled $51,986,718, for an increase of 8.2 percent over the current budget.

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Proposed cuts to the budget include six support positions, three requested buildings and grounds positions, a requested webmaster position, a classroom teacher full-time equivalent and adjustment counselor cuts equivalent to 1.5 positions.

In cutting the budget, the focus was on classrooms and “maintaining instructional quality,” superintendent Carol Cavanaugh said during the May 14 School Committee meeting.

One-time purchases were pushed off or eliminated, alternative funding sources were sought and capital projects were deferred to further reduce the budget, she added.

Unknowns such as potential state aid losses make the figure “a moving target,” Cavanaugh noted.

School finance director Susan Rothermich said the key was to make decisions now to firm up schedules when school restarts.

“The most important thing we can do is to move forward with the school year in September,” she said. “That layer had to get done and settled as soon as possible.”

As the school year progresses and finances become clearer, positions could potentially be added then, she said. But for now, “We needed to settle the teachers, settle the classrooms, settle the children.”

“I’m extremely uncomfortable with this budget,” committee member Amanda Fargiano said. “Even before, we were cutting into flesh, not fat. We built our budget on crowded schools and classrooms. I don’t see how we can make this work.”

She said these cuts are coming during “times that are extremely volatile” with students returning to class having had “various experiences” during the pandemic and coming in with “emotional burdens or stress” while adjustment counselors are being cut.

Committee member Jen Devlin said the cuts were “things we really, really needed. These are things we are going to feel. Once things settle down, we’re going to need these things.”

“None of this is ideal,” Rothermich said. “We can only do what the finances allow. The economic times are not working in our favor.”

She said an override could be sought, but “so many people in town are not in a good financial place.”

The cuts will “absolutely” have an impact, Cavanaugh said. “This is the response to dire economic times.” Support positions that have been cut reflect people who “keep the ship afloat.”

But she said she is hopeful that “we will not be in a bad place in terms of teaching and learning because we’ve isolated the classrooms” from the bulk of the cuts.

Committee member Nancy Cavanaugh cast a dissenting vote against the budget in March, expressing concerns that the cuts were too deep, but she noted that “those were different times.”

Right now, she said, “I don’t know that we have better choices.”

No vote was taken or required on the budget proposal.

In another matter, the committee unanimously agreed to reject school choice for the next school year, noting that enrollments within town are increasing and leave little room for additional students.

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