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Mount Greylock Finance Subcommittee Looks at Contingencies for FY21 Budget

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Mount Greylock Assistant Superintendent of Business and Finance Andrea Wadsworth advises the School Committee's Finance Subcommittee on Monday.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School District is making plans to bridge funding gaps if expected cuts in state aid materialize this summer.
On Monday, the School Committee's Finance Subcommittee met with the assistant superintendent of business and finance to discuss the fiscal 2021 budget.
The first item of business was fairly straightforward: reviewing a 1/12th budget for July that the district Monday submitted for approval to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Andrea Wadsworth, assistant superintendent for business and finance, told the subcommittee that since the district committee this winter planned an essentially level-funded budget, the business office divided the FY20 spending plan in 12 equal parts. She does not expect to use the entire July appropriation, but the state guidelines allow the district to roll that over into August and -- if needed -- roll any overage in August into September, when the district's expenses traditionally go up.
The 1/12th budget was authorized by the commonwealth for municipalities and regional school districts because legislators recognized the coming disruption to state and local finances due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Locally, Williamstown's town meeting, normally held in May, has been postponed to a date to be determined. The Lanesborough town meeting is scheduled for next Tuesday, but there is an item on the agenda of Wednesday's Board of Selectmen meeting titled "annual town meeting" and a subsequent item titled "1/12th Budget."
Town and school budgets need approval from the annual town meetings in the spring.
Meanwhile, the state budget process -- which determines the level of state aid to school districts -- is well behind schedule, and state revenues are down and expenses up because of the economic slowdown caused by the novel coronavirus.
Wadsworth and Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch, who joined Monday's video conference, agreed that no one knows the magnitude of the state cut. But everyone believes they are coming.
Wadsworth laid out for the three School Committee members in the subcommittee different scenarios based on potential levels of cuts to Chapter 70 and other funding streams.
The rosiest scenario, a 5 percent cut in state aid, would leave a $342,000 hole in the district's budget. If that is the case, Wadsworth said she already has sat down with the district's three principals and found $309,000 cuts -- mostly technology improvements -- that could cover the loss. The rest, she said, could easily be covered by the School Committee from School Choice and tuition revenue.
Wadsworth told the subcommittee she expects the cuts in state aid to be higher and predicted it will be nearer to 10 percent.
At that rate, she said, the district loses about $585,000 after she ran the numbers. That point, she is recommending that the School Committee devote more from School Choice and tuition reserves to maintain as much of the operation as possible.
"If we get into a 10 to 15 percent situation, I'd still recommend you use up to $400,000 in School Choice and tuition, but you'll need deeper cuts because [the budget hole after the $400,000 is added] is $426,000, and we only found $309,000 [in cuts] at this point," Wadsworth said.
Noting that the hope is that state cuts are less Draconian and emphasizing that the priority is on maintaining instructional capability, Wadsworth walked the subcommittee through some of the cuts under consideration.
"In all of the schools … instructional hardware is getting eliminated from the budget," she said of the contingency plan. "Lanesborough [Elementary] is keeping $13,000, because they need the most work. Williamstown Elementary has eliminated … any money to repair the cameras, to install projectors, to fix the phone system. … Mount Greylock didn't have that ability because they're new. They actually eliminated all equipment, supplies and a lot of textbooks.
"They have another line of tiered cuts that they would do next. Obviously, they're trying to keep staff intact. … The next tier would be to cut the Shakespeare & Company [at both elementary schools], to cut the football program [at Mount Greylock]. They'll start looking at outside programs that will be in the next tier. The final tier will be to look at not filling retirements, not filling new positions that they needed and then, ultimately, reducing staff.
"They're trying to be very lean in what they do."
Subcommittee Chair Jamie Art noted that while the district's revenue projections are at best speculative, it also is facing unknown expenses related to the reopening of schools in the fall.
"If we're looking at a hybrid model of some continued remote learning or platooning [students] with Week A and Week B … what does that do to the expense side?" Art asked. "I know we'll have some level of physical modifications to the building … but do we expect we'll  have any big expense shocks coming that we won't be able to cover?"
Wadsworth replied that the school already has seen guidance suggesting Plexiglas partitions between sinks in public restrooms, and she agreed there could be staffing implications related to any kind of staggered schedules for students to allow for greater social distancing in the school buildings. She said Superintendent Kimberley Grady has a conference call scheduled for Wednesday with the commonwealth's reopening committee to continue the discussion of what reopened schools will look like during the pandemic.
"As with everything, there's a price tag attached," Wadsworth said.
Wadsworth and Hoch also noted that the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is not going to be limited to one year, especially for school districts like Mount Greylock that are fortunate enough to have some reserves to help cover the one-year shortfall in FY21.
"A point we all need to keep in mind about reserves … using some of the reserves makes sense," Hoch said. "Some of this is a two-year impact. We're going to be replenishing [the reserves] at a lower rate and, formulaically, we will be receiving some at a lower rate. So somehow we have to bridge ourselves over multiple years with cash on hand."
Wadsworth added, "And then hope that years three, four and five, we can start to build back up as we come out of this."

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