Schools settle for 8.26 percent budget increase

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Town taps into Legacy Farms HCA to help make ends meet

By a 3-2 vote, Hopkinton School Committee members on March 12 approved a fiscal year 2021 budget of $51.9 million, a reduction of $323,000 from the amount the school district had requested but more than the town had initially projected.

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The budget represents an increase of 8.26 percent over the current budget, an increase fueled by the town’s growing school population. The district had sought $52.3 million. The budget adds more than 40 positions.

The town had directed departments to limit increases to 5.4 percent, but the schools quickly determined that was not feasible due to existing contractual obligations along with the surge in enrollment.

“The community heard the concerns and the impact of growth,” Town Manager Norman Khumalo said at the joint meeting of the Select Board and School Committee on March 12. He described the added positions as a “substantial increase” over current staffing levels.
In reaching the final budget figure, he said the town was “very careful not to impact direct instructional services to our wonderful kids.”

Two nights earlier, at the Select Board meeting on March 10, Khumalo explained that the additional money would come from funding created by the Legacy Farms host community agreement (HCA).

Khumalo noted that this is a one-time fix and could lead to issues in future years, including the need for tax overrides.

“That sets us up with a potential problem in the FY21 budget if the new, more aggressive enrollment projections being used by the schools prove to be correct,” he said.

Select Board member Brian Herr supported tapping into the Legacy Farms HCA funds, stating, “This is exactly what that money was designed to do,” because many of the new students are residents of the new Legacy Farms development.

Added Herr: “This is a pretty unique budget year for a lot of different reasons. Increases are all about the growth in the town of Hopkinton. I’ve always been pretty aggressive in trying to manage the budget process, and managing the numbers. … But when the town is growing this fast, when the schools are growing this fast, we can’t put that great institution in any kind of jeopardy. So, I, this year, as crazy as it sounds, support these kinds of increases in general.”

In supporting the budget, School Committee chair Meena Bharath said that while she would “love to see an 8.9 percent increase … I understand the constraints.”

School department director of finance Susan Rothermich said the $335,000 shortfall was a “manageable reduction. I think we can figure out how to manage this budget.”

Requesting an override for such a small figure would “annoy people,” Herr said, and be “difficult to sell.” He urged the committee to find a way to make the budget work.

School Committee member Meg Tyler said the reductions could be made, as an example, by cutting a proposed webmaster position. She also questioned the need for an assistant middle school football coach and wondered if the position could be filled by a volunteer. “I don’t think we’re really in a bad spot,” she said.

Committee member Amanda Fargiano said that although she worried about revenue streams, “We can probably find the money” to make the cuts required. She said she was mindful that the overall town budget made “significant cuts” on the municipal side.

In casting a dissenting vote, committee member Nancy Cavanaugh said she is “not comfortable making budget cuts without knowing what they are.” The reductions, she said, “would impact students.”

Committee member Jen Devlin also voted against further cuts to the budget, which she said is “as lean as it can be.” She said the $323,000 figure is “still a lot” and, “It’s going to affect the kids.”

In response to a question about the impact of the cuts, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Carol Cavanaugh said the reduced number “can work, but it will have an impact.”

Select Board chair John Coutinho praised the cooperation among town boards to reach an agreement. “We have to take care of each other,” he said.