Selectmen from Halifax, Kingston, and Plympton attended the June 4 meeting of the Silver Lake Regional School Committee to discuss the FY21 regional school budget. On May 28, the regional school committee voted to pass the original budget number from March with the caveat that they would be asking the three towns to vote no to their budget at their respective town meetings. If the towns voted down the March budget it would cause the region’s budget to revert to fy20 levels by default (a reduction of about $706,000 from the March 12 budget). The intent was to allow the school district additional time to make an informed decision regarding the budget and possible cuts based on actual numbers from the state. As of the present time, no one knows the extent of cuts to state aid as the commonwealth has provided no indication as to when or what the budget will look like.
As a result of the economic hardship brought on by the pandemic, the towns of Halifax, Kingston, and Plympton were asking for a combined $525,000 reduction in the assessment to the three towns. Kingston specifically requested a $300,000 reduction to their assessment.
The school committee felt their hand was forced in voting a budget on May 28 as the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) had requested that they provide them with a budget that they could then use in determining a 1/12 budget scale for Silver Lake.
“This kind of came out of the blue… we didn’t really have time to react to it,” Fraser explained. He continued, “Some of the school committee members were taken aback by DESE asking us to give them budget numbers when they won’t give us an inkling of what our Chapter 70 funding is going to look like.”
The region receives about $7.3 million in Chapter 70 funds. As Fraser pointed out, even a 1 percent decrease in those funds translates into $73,000 in cuts. “When we agreed to reduce the assessments to the towns by $525,000 we weren’t really doing anything to protect ourselves from a decrease in Chapter 70 funding,” Fraser said. “Out of frustration and out of an act of rebellion against the state, we chose to pass over voting new numbers last week and just sent to DESE the original budget from March 12.
We didn’t feel that it was in our best interest to try and satisfy their ridiculous request for a number from us when they wouldn’t give us thirty percent of our budget to work with,” Fraser explained.
Since the May 28 meeting Fraser said that he has had discussions with town officials regarding the committee’s decision to ask the towns’ to vote down the school’s budget. The two major flaws in the committee’s plan from that meeting were 1.) the towns would potentially be forced to have a special town meeting just for the school and 2.) the ability to access E & D funds in the amount of $125,000 toward next year’s budget would be jeopardized. If a budget isn’t decided upon by June 30, the school would be forced to make additional cuts in that amount. Another issue is that if the school was unable to have a resolution by December, which would involve two out of the three towns voting through a budget, the region would lose local control over their budget. “What I propose for us to do here tonight is to try and satisfy as many of these difficult situations as possible,” Fraser told those assembled.
Fraser went on to say he asked Director of Business Services Christine Healy to look into reducing the assessments to the towns by $525,000 while holding back $181,000 for the region’s protection in potential reductions to Chapter 70 funding. Fraser stressed that the amount held back would only provide a 2.5 percent cushion which is much lower than other communities and school systems in the state.
Essentially Fraser was recommending cutting the budget from the fy21 total to the fy20 level or a reduction of $706,000. He explained that this would allow the towns to vote yes in support of a budget that would hold up for twelve months.
Crone said that he has tried to gain a sense of what other communities are anticipating for reductions in state aid based on conversations with other school committees. He said that some are anticipating reductions as high as 20 percent while the budget being proposed by Fraser only includes a buffer for a 2 percent reduction.
Committee member and Halifax selectman Gordon Andrews said that the 2.5 percent cut was not realistic and recommended that if the school committee votes for a budget, they do so with a realistic number.
He said that using a 2 percent reduction in state aid would cause the committee to have to go back to square one and re-vote a new, more reduced budget. Andrews pointed out that the town of Halifax is looking at a total of an 8 percent reduction in state aid and the town of Kingston a 15 percent reduction.
“If you look at the math of what the tax revenues are coming in at, the numbers seem a lot closer to the 15 percent than the 8 percent overall,” Andrews said. “We are going to be talking about a million dollars if it’s at 15 percent,” he continued.
While Fraser said that he understood Andrews’ trepidation with using an estimate of a 2.5 percent decrease in Chapter 70 funds, he also felt strongly that the region work with the three towns and provide a budget for them to vote on that gives the towns what they asked for.
School committee member Leslie-Ann McGee inquired if there was a way to protect the E & D funds without voting a new budget. The E & D funds have typically been used to fund capital infrastructure issues. Healy said that they would be able to continue funding capital infrastructure projects but not at the same level that they have been able to do over the last five years. Andrews asked if it would be possible to expend that money right now on items on the capital plan. Healy said, “Theoretically we could, the tough thing is some of those items have a leeway because there is planning to be done.”
The Committee took a vote requiring a two-thirds majority to accept the regular day operating budget of the regional schools of $25,992,354. With the exception of Andrews and McGee the committee voted through the number which represents a $706,000 reduction from the March 12 budget.
Both Andrews and McGee were emphatic in their disagreement with the decision being made by the committee.
“I’m observing that we just voted a number that none of us have any confidence in,” McGee stated. Andrews referenced the cuts that would have to be made to come up with the $706,000 saying, “Again, I just think this is a total mistake. We are asking them [the towns] to vote a budget that they don’t know what is inside.” Both Andrews and McGee said they would encourage their towns to vote against the number.
Fraser said that the committee would reassemble on June 16 “hopefully to make some better educated guesses as to where we’re going to find the $706,000 line by line, item by item.”
The committee did agree to have Fraser draft a letter to the three towns to ask permission to go back to the table if there is an increase in funds from the federal government.
Despite the vote taken during the June 4 meeting, Fraser corresponded with the Express on June 8 saying, “I have been asked for a reconsideration of the budget vote from 6/4 so the news from Silver Lake is continuing to evolve.”
CARES Act Funding
Plymouth County Treasurer Thomas O’Brien attended Thursday’s meeting to explain about the allocation of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds. Of the $2.7 billion received by Massachusetts, $90 million was awarded to the communities of Plymouth County. According to O’Brien, there were four governmental entities with a population of more than 500,000 that were eligible to receive a portion of those funds.
Of those four, only the city of Boston and Plymouth County completed the application process for their portion of the funds rather than granting the state control. The state takes a percentage of the funds for administrative costs for those entities for which they are managing the distribution of the funds.
O’Brien told those assembled that the federal government has extensive guidelines for how the funds can be spent and further said that the guidelines have already been changed three times. O’Brien said a designated website PlymouthCountyCares.com has been established to house all the guidelines and other pertinent information.
“What this is going to take… is a significant amount of coordination between town officials, school officials, public safety officials, finance committee officials, to make sure that the town realizes what resources are available and then applies in the best manner possible to the best source possible for finding reimbursement,” O’Brien explained.
He also emphasized that “these funds are not available for revenue replacement.” The CARES funds are strictly to be used for unexpected, unbudgeted expenses that were incurred as a result of the pandemic.
The first phase is intended to be a reimbursement for expenditures through June 30. The second phase will be for expenditures from July 1 and onward. “Phase 1 is secure and underway, and we will be releasing that money as quickly as it is expected.”
According to O’Brien only 6 of the 27 eligible communities have thus far applied for the funding available during Phase 1. Fraser said that the hope is that the four school districts (K-6 for each of the three towns and the regional for 7-12) can put together one unified package rather than receiving packages for the disparate schools.
Technology Director Steve Pellowe is currently working with Proulx on a list of technology expenses that have incurred as a direct result of COVID-19.