NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The School Committee was prepared for a number of bad financial scenarios, with the worst case the closure of an elementary school.
This week, the news isn't quite so awful with the state committed to level-funding aid through at least the first two months of fiscal 2021. But the district isn't out of the woods yet, Superintendent Barbara Malkas told the committee on Tuesday.
"So, because level fund is not necessarily level service, what we'll be presenting now, just like in the previous budget scenarios, is what does that mean with regards to our budget as we are planning for an operational budget based on level funding from Chapter 70," she said. "However, you know, this is a placeholder budget. ... We don't have final cherry sheet numbers and we may not until the end of July or early August."
Malkas said she will be coming back to the School Committee with adjustments as the numbers are more solidified. "This could be the operational budget that allows us to move forward and start our planning for next year," she said.
The city Finance Committee on Monday voted to recommend a 1/12th, or month by month, budget based on information provided by Mayor Thomas Bernard and his financial team. The plan had initially been to pass a full placeholder budget until the state could approve a spending plan for fiscal 2021. The original state budget had to be scrapped because of the hit the economy took from the novel coronavirus pandemic.
"We were feeling very much like we didn't have a clear sign to proceed, or clear directions in which to proceed," Bernard said.
That changed last Friday when Gov. Charlie Baker submitted a $5.25 billion supplemental spending bill to keep government running. Municipalities were informed by the state's Division of Local Services that "DLS will base at least the first two months of FY2021 on the FY2020 cherry sheet estimates for Chapter 70, Unrestricted General Government Aid, State-owned Land and Elderly Exemptions."
Knowing that the city would have two months of concrete state revenue figures, the council switched to a continuation budget based on this year's spending plan and the School Department prepared to do likewise.
The changes for the schools is not dramatic, and similar to what had been proposed for a 10 percent reduction. The main difference is that two full-time teaching positions will be restored and less school choice funds will be used.
"We had to prioritize what positions we're bringing back. And the positions that I prioritized based on on preliminary conversations that I've had with the [education] commissioner's office around reopening were the teaching positions," Malkas said. "There were four teaching positions, two at Brayton and two at Greylock. The reason I prioritize those positions, is because, in the absence of having those teachers we push ourselves on that continuum toward a hybrid model, as opposed to being able to bring all of our students back in the fall."
School Committee member Tara Jacobs again advocated for maintaining resources in the arts, particularly plans still in place to reduce a half-time chorus teacher. She said she'd looked into the reportedly low signups and found the "truth of the matter is blurrier than the numbers suggest" that may have to do with "drama in the drama world" that explained the situation on a deeper level.
However, she said, it "ultimately ended up with repeated expression of interest in chorus and a desire for chorus."
"One of the things that I've always been proud of about our offering has been how rich are arts are," she said. "I remain deeply disturbed to see that, you know, having having brought back so much that's still on the chopping block."
What, she said, if they took the opportunity for a radical reallocation and closed Greylock and kept the teachers?
Bernard, chairman of the School Committee, said maybe that was a conversation they should be having but that there's another factor: the pandemic.
"I think the challenge right now is not the economics, alone, it's also the public health side of this, and the ability to do that, given what we can anticipate a reopening of schools plan is going to say about the amount of space we need," he said. "We can't consolidate and still meet the spacing requirements. ...
"We have one position we're talking about. However, we're not walking away from a commitment to art and enrichment and social emotional development in the district."
The target budget for level fund is $17,769,075 (does not include the $265,000 used in school choice this year); offsets include $491,049 in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, Funds, $222,000 in school choice (below the original amount) and $125,000 in federal grants.
The district is estimating it will spend $67,000 per quarter for personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies; $32,000 per year for replacement of some 300 devices loaned out to children for remote learning, and $7,000 annually for 40 hotspots and service for remote learning.
Cuts would include most of those noted in earlier scenarios including three positions in administration; a restructuring of the E3 and Northern Berkshire academies; four fewer drivers and vans; the loss of the chorus post, and half-time instrumental teacher, Spanish teacher, and special education teacher. Many of the posts will be vacant from retirement or resignation, or reassigned and consolidated. A full-time vision specialist will be reduced to 0.8 FTE at her request.
The budget will allow the schools to maintain their current grade configuration with two classrooms per grade from prekindergarten through Grade 6, keeps 10 full-time equivalent educators in the fine and performing arts, fully funds extracurricular activities and sports, and provides sufficient staffing for reopening the buildings under Department of Elementary and Secondary Education guidelines.
"I wanted to thank the administrative team for presenting a budget that is much more realistic than the other 2-3-4 that we've seen despite the constant fluidity of the situation," said Vice Chairwoman Heather Boulger. "We all have valuable programs that we want to advocate for and to the superintendent's point, what we're approving, or moving forward with won't look anything like we're going to end up with in the fall."
School officials also thanked Business Administrator Carrie Burnett, who has been crunching the numbers for now five different budget scenarios.
"As I have seen many times throughout her time here but certainly over the last month, Ms. Burnett turns on a dime, and will give us back seven cents in change," Bernard.
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A tropical storm heading north up the Atlantic coast could bring more rain to the Berkshires over the weekend.
Dubbed "Fay," the storm began as a tropical depression off the coast of North Carolina midweek and formed late Thursday.
According to Accuweather, the storm has sustained winds of 60 mph and could bring 2 to 4 inches of rain over Western Mass and Southern Vermont from late Friday through Saturday morning.
"Fay will make landfall along the New Jersey coast during Friday afternoon," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist and Lead Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski said. "Fay will be a mostly heavy rain producer but could still bring wind gusts of 50-60 mph along coastal areas of eastern Long Island and over southern coastal areas of New England."