Governmental boards have turned to conference calling and platforms such as Zoom to do business.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The pandemic has school officials working in the dark when it comes to budgeting for the district's needs.
They're preparing for several scenarios — but even the best case won't be easy.
A preliminary budget with a 1.5 percent increase to maintain level services had already been presented to the Finance and Facilities subcommittee. That's now off the table as schools are shuttered until at least May 4 — if not longer — and Beacon Hill had barely made headway with the fiscal 2021 spending plan before the spreading novel coronavirus put everyone on an emergency footing.
Superintendent Barbara Malkas told the subcommittee, meeting on the Zoom platform, that she was removing discussion of the fiscal 2021 budget from next week's School Committee agenda.
"We have taken it off the agenda, because there's so many variables right now," she said. "Right now, the schools are shuttered until May 4, we have not received any information from the state that indicates that that is going to be extended at this time. And once we know that it's going to impact through the remainder of the school year ... that tells us something different about what our needs might be in the fall."
Most Berkshire County school districts had closed on March 13 for cleaning and disinfecting as the first cases of COVID-19 began to appear here. Later that day, all the Berkshire districts decided to close for two weeks; this was later followed by the governor closing all schools until April 4 and then extending that to May 4.
Business Administrator Carrie Burnett said she's been trying to benchmark spending year over year but the situation is fluid between what is coming in and what's going out.
For instance, school buildings are closed so there are some savings there but staff is still being paid. North Adams had also collaborated with other school districts on developing a contract template for the bus company that is now being reviewed by legal counsel and there's the probability that the high school sports spring season will be canceled. On the other hand, technology loaned out to students for remote learning will likely have to be replaced.
"There were so many little changes that we were making year over year that it's really hard to identify at this stage in the game what, if any, percentage we are going to have that could be considered extra and above and beyond," she said. "We are potentially 1 percent lower than we were last year, but February saw an increase due to, you know, getting stuff in in preparation for this."
The preliminary budget with the 1.5 percent increase had included cuts that were planned to be offset by retirements, attrition and waivers. A second budget is now level-funded that Burnett thinks can be met with the similar cuts and judicious usage of acounts. Malkas said that might not be enough if the city sees an expected precipitous decline in rooms and meal taxes, and as commercial businesses are closed or reduced. A similar scenario may be played out at the state level affecting education aid.
"The concern is, what if we now have to prepare a budget that is less than a level fund budget," Malkas said. "That would be very concerning for us because then we would either need to supplement that somehow in order to make up the difference. Or consider going to some other potential cuts to maintain the district."
She said there is talk that the state may institute a 1/12 budget if districts cannot get a spending plan approved by the end of the fiscal year on June 30. This option is a fallback usually for regional districts that cannot pass a budget: They can spend 1/12 of the past year's budget amount each month until a new budget is passed.
Malkas also said it was possible that the administrators could come to the School Committee in June for an appropriation for the fiscal 2020 budget.
The superintendent said the impact of the closure would mean assessing student skills as they return to school in May or in the fall that will affect curriculum, schedules, and use of resources.
"There is an entire quarter of standards that are not going to be taught," she said. "There's going to be some teaching remotely, but most of that is really going to be around really building skills and maintaining skills. So, so it's not going to be specifically to grow new skills, and so closing that gap is going to be a priority as we go into the next year. ...
"There's just so many aspects to that, that right now I want to get us up and running in the remote learning plan, and then really think about that as we know for sure just how long this closure is going to be for us."
In the meantime, she wanted to acknowldge the work her team has accomplished in the interim.
"Two, three weeks ago, nobody was planning any of this," she said. "We were operating under the assumption that we could prevent coronavirus ... it was March 3 that there were three cases of community transmission in Berkshire County one in North County, to where we are now."
Chairwoman Tara Jacobs said she wanted to thank the adminstration for its hard work and the teachers for the efforts they had made in keeping the school community going online.
"As a parent, just to chime in on how important and emotionally sustaining those interactions, have been," she said. "That contact and connectedness to teachers but also just the gathering of classmates that has brought a tiny bit of normalcy into an otherwise uncertain and disconnected time has really been so key in helping. And so appreciated."
In other business:
Facilities Director Robert Flaherty said the schools are currently disinfected and closed but being kept up by a skeleton staff. He anticipated three or four days to prepare the buildings to reopen. "Not as much as cleaning, as much as getting everything in order for everybody because there, there are things out of order," he said.
There are some roof, window and heating updates he had hoped to have done but can't.
"Nobody's returning calls, nobody's coming out, nobody's making appointments," Flaherty said. "And so we're basically in a holding pattern. As far as getting all these things done, that we thought we might have a little jump on. We don't."
He said the state was still requiring elevator inspection even though the buildings (except for the Drury kitchen) aren't being used and that would mean re-disinfecting areas.
Network Administrator Moty Nevo is working to extend the wifi at Greylock and Colegrove Park schools so guests can sign on in the parking lots. Malkas said this is being done to help students who may not have access to the internet.
The school meal program has jumped from 2,000 served two weeks ago to 4,000 this past week and the district is awaiting federal permission to expand the program to a few other sites. Burnett said Food Services Director Corey Nicholas is keeping tight control on the program, which operates out of a separate, self-sustaining budget. It is under some pressure, however, and should be hearing on two grants — an Eos Foundation grant for mobile equipment and No Kid Hungry to help offset salaries — in a week.
Subcommittee member Heather Boulger, a 22-year veteran of the School Committee, said she's seen plenty of ups and downs over the years.
"This too shall pass, and I think we move forward as if we're going to be back in session on the fourth," she said. "Although, who knows. And then if that's not the case, we go to pPlan B. And then if that's not the case, we've got a Plan C and D. I'm confident that our leadership team will be able to to direct us in these times of uncertainty."
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Know Your Risk Tolerance at Different Stages of Life
Submitted by Edward Jones
As an investor, you will always need to deal with risk of some kind. But how can you manage the risk that has been made clear by the recent volatility in the financial markets? The answer to this question may depend on where you are in life.
Let's look at some different life stages and how you might deal with risk at each of them:
• When you are first starting out: If you are early in your career, with perhaps four or even five decades to go until you retire, you can likely afford to invest primarily for growth, which also means you will be taking on a higher level of risk, as risk and reward are positively correlated. But, given your age, you have time to overcome the market downturns that are both inevitable and a normal part of investing. Consequently, your risk tolerance may be relatively high. Still, even at this stage, being over-aggressive can be costly.
• When you are in the middle stages: At this time of your life, you are well along in your career, and you are probably working on at least a couple of financial goals, such as saving for retirement and possibly for your children's college education. So, you still need to be investing for growth, which means you likely will need to maintain a relatively high risk tolerance. Nonetheless, it's a good idea to have some balance in your portfolio, so you will want to consider a mix of investments that align with each of your goals.
• When you are a few years from retirement: Now, you might have already achieved some key goals – perhaps your kids have finished college and you have paid off your mortgage. This may mean you have more money available to put away for retirement, but you still will have to think carefully about how much risk you are willing to take. Since you’re going to retire soon, you might consider rebalancing your portfolio to include some more conservative investments, whose value is less susceptible to financial market fluctuations. The reason? In just a few years, when you are retired, you will need to start taking withdrawals from your investment portfolio – essentially, you will be selling investments, so, as much as possible, you will want to avoid selling them when their price is down. Nonetheless, having a balanced and diversified portfolio doesn't fully protect against a loss. However, you can further reduce the future risk of being overly dependent on selling variable investments by devoting a certain percentage of your portfolio to cash and cash equivalents and designating this portion to be used for your daily expenses during the years immediately preceding, and possibly spilling into, your retirement.
• When you are retired: Once you are retired, you might think you should take no risks at all. But you could spend two or three decades in retirement, so you may need some growth potential in your portfolio to stay ahead of inflation. Establishing a withdrawal rate – the amount you take out each year from your investments – that's appropriate for your lifestyle and projected longevity can reduce the risk of outliving your money. Of course, if there's an extended market downturn during any time of your retirement, you may want to lower your withdrawal rate temporarily.
As you can see, your tolerance for risk, and your methods of dealing with it, can change over time. By being aware of this progression, you can make better-informed investment decisions.
Wayne Gelinas and Lea King have been forced to shutter their Mohawk Trail eatery, at least for the time being. But they have found a way to continue business online while providing free meals to those in need.
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