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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Crews spent long hours digging, filling and chasing down gates, leavened with a little levity.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city released a boil water notice for all residences and business that lost water service or experienced discolored water or lower pressure in connection to the River Street water main break.
The Department of Public Services released a statement at 2:30 p.m. on Friday urging residents and businesses whose water was affected to boil water before consumption.
The statement reads:
"Due to the water main break on River Street, and as a precaution, all residences and business which lost water service, or experienced discolored water or lower pressure (below 35 psi at the water main/hydrant), advised to boil water for one minute prior to use for human consumption."
The Department of Public Services released a statement at 2:30 pm on Friday urging residents and businesses whose water was affected by the water main break on River Street to boil water before consumption. click for more
The investigation launched in April, which included Medicaid fraud team investigators, spoke with more than 90 family members of veterans and others who called into the attorney general's office.
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The Northern Berkshire Community Coalition will commence its annual event, Voices for Recovery, beginning this Friday, Sept. 25. This year's theme is "Days of Hope," and the weeklong event coincides with the conclusion of Recovery Month.
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The 24-inch main sprung a leak sometime on Tuesday that was reported about 7 p.m. that night. Crews began working the problem on Wednesday morning. River Street between Marshall and Holden was closed to traffic.
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The total amount to be raised is $40,939,756, up $134,218, or 0.33 percent, from last year. Some $11,369.776 has already been spent over the past three months through continuing appropriations caused by delays in the state budget because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
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Local governments will be taking up the question of Halloween activities in the coming weeks but it looks like traditional trick-or-treating is out this year. And don't think that plastic costume mask is a substitute for the cloth one you're wearing now.
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