The Silver Lake Regional School Committee met remotely on Thursday, May 28, to vote on a revised FY21 budget. The budget process, which began back in late 2019, has been complicated by the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Back in mid-May, Superintendent Jill Proulx presented nearly a million dollars in potential cuts to the version of the budget previously voted on by the committee in March. The March 12 version of the budget came in at $26,698,578 for an increase of 2.71 percent over the previous year’s budget but a decrease from January’s proposed 3.31 percent increase. Chair of the Silver Lake School Committee Jason Fraser said, “This number was lauded by all three of our communities… and then we didn’t go back to school the next day and our world changed.”
Jon Lay spoke on behalf of the Silver Lake Education Association (SLEA) and stressed two points, the first of which being that every dollar in the budget is not equal. He said that some expenditures, such as teachers, have more of a direct impact on students than others. Currently there are 12.9 full time teaching positions on the line. He also took exception to what he called a reluctance on the part of the school committee to, in their words, micromanage the superintendent. Lay said that the SLEA wouldn’t consider it micromanaging but rather the committee doing their due diligence. After Lay spoke the committee took a half-hour recess in order to enter into executive session to discuss negotiations for SLEA.
Upon returning to open session the committee took up the budget discussion once again. Due to the hardships posed by the pandemic, Halifax, Kingston, and Plympton all asked the school committee to revisit their budget. Kingston, which requested a $300,000 reduction to their assessment, was the only one of the three communities to provide a specific number. State aid made up 30 percent of the school budget last year totaling $7.3 million. The remaining portion of the school budget is made up of the three communities’ assessments. Experts are estimating that the budget crisis brought on by the pandemic could result in anywhere from a $4 to $8 billion deficit for that state’s fy21 budget. The state budget likely won’t be released prior to June 30 prompting Fraser to stress that despite the educated guesses floating around, no one knows the actual numbers yet.
The school committee expressed their frustration at revising their budget without any indication as to what potential cuts to Chapter 70 funding will look like. “I feel like we’re blindfolded throwing darts at a wall here,” Vice Chair Eric Crone said. Many other school districts are simply voting their prior year budgets to submit to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). “We’re putting so many people’s lives on hold because of the position that DESE put us in,” Fraser bemoaned.
With the prospect of potentially needing to go to a one-twelfth budget looming, the school committee was feeling the pressure to deliver on a budget Thursday night. A one-twelfth budget would allow them to allocate enough funds for a single month’s expenditure based on the previous year’s budget. This will be true, as well, for those towns that do not go through with their town meetings prior to June 30 as they will be unable to vote the budget as a town. Both Kingston and Plympton are planning to move forward with their town meetings on June 13 and June 17 respectively. Halifax will most likely postpone their meeting until later in the summer thus necessitating a one-twelfth budget for their town.
Fraser moved to simply vote through the FY20 budget number of $25,992,345 for this year as many other districts had done. Gordon Andrews, a Halifax selectman and a member of the regional and Halifax school committees proposed an out of the box, albeit temporary, solution to the school’s budget crisis. Andrews suggested that the committee vote on the March 12 budget number and ask the towns to vote the number down at their town meetings. While this would necessitate a second town meeting to vote the amended number, it would also buy the school committee an additional thirty days from the dates of those meetings to derive a budget based on the state’s amended numbers. Given the outside of the box nature of the proposition, many members of the committee were initially unsure how they felt about it. Fraser withdrew his motion and allowed for a five-minute recess so that committee members could take a moment to think over Andrew’s suggestion.
A number of concerns were discussed once back in session. Among them, Crone said that he was worried about not giving the towns what they asked for the assessment. Crone and others also expressed concern over assuring the towns’ compliance in voting against the school’s budget. It was agreed that it would need to be explicitly communicated to the selectmen and finance committees the logic behind the decision to ask the towns to vote down the school budget. Another concern was the cost of having to hold a second town meeting. While there is an expense of usually $5,000 to $10,000 per town associated with holding such a meeting, most of the committee agreed that it was menial in comparison to what is at stake.
The motion voted on Thursday was to submit to DESE a one-twelfth budget based on the March 12 budget that was previously voted on by the school committee. Despite only needing two-thirds of the committee’s approval, the motion passed with unanimous support. A follow-up meeting will be held with the school committee as well as the finance committees and selectmen from the three towns.
Proulx gave an update on COVID-19 related issues. School nurses have been asked to send their requests for personal protective equipment (PPE) to their respective building principals despite not yet having the recommended equipment list. Items to be purchased include thermometers, hand sanitizer, masks, and for schools over 1,000, cameras that register temperatures. Proulx also said that she believes there will be guidance available by the end of June regarding reentry. It would still be subject to change, however, before the start of school.