Wishin’ and Hopin’: While School District Finalizing Cuts, Optimism Remains That Federal Monies Will Save The Day

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When Belmont School Superintendent John Phelan was asked earlier this month by the School Committee to “think creatively” in finding ways to fill a $2.1 million chasm in the school’s fiscal year 2022 budget, he need only look back one year for a successful template to the problem at hand.

When the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly interrupted last year’s budget process, Phelan – speaking before the Belmont School Committee on Tuesday, April 27 – noted how the district was able to rely on an emergency injection of dollars from Washington DC to allow the schools to keep teachers while moving to a remote and then hybrid education model.

Belmont in Austerity

“We used financial support from the federal government to be able to service the district as best we could,” said Phelan. This year “[w]e’re hoping to do something very similar with fiscal ’22”, by using federal grant money to close a deficit created after residents rejected a Proposition 2 1/2 override vote at April’s Town Election.

But rather than submit to the committee a single fiscal blueprint going into next year, Phelan presented two separate avenues the budget could travel to Town Meeting for a June vote: the current fiscal ’22 operating budget with $2.1 million in cuts and lost positions and several ambitious budgets in which federal funding is used.

“We’re going to explain the budget in two different segments,” said Phelan. “We want to make for sure that there’s a clear distinction in all our minds as to our operating budget … and using one time money to support students and teachers next year.”

School Committee Budget Community Forum

Please join the Belmont School Committee and Administrators for an opportunity to ask questions regarding the Fiscal Year 2022 School Budget.

Tuesday May 4, at 6:30 PM

Please click the link below to join the webinar by computer, tablet or smartphone:
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/82730714204

Under a sub headline he called “bad news,” Phelan presented the committee the difficult reductions in what he has long said “makes many students want to come to school”: extra curriculum activities including athletics and the arts.

In sports, $200,000 would be saved with the elimination of ninth-grade teams and cuts up and down the budget – not replacing worn uniforms, reduction in travel expenses, playing only the minimum number of league games – while fully a third of visual and performing arts clubs (four at the Chenery and ten at the High School) would be dropped saving $28,000. Finally, approximately a quarter of a million dollars would be taken from associated revolving funds which totals up to $418,000.

Supplies – the pencils, copier paper and electronics – the necessary day-to-day stores for a school to function efficiently will see significant reductions, from $5,000 to $7,000 at each elementary school to $17,000 at the high school and $18,000 at the Chenery for a total of $57,200.

While the majority of the committee suggested even greater cutbacks targeting sports and the arts could be coming in the near future, Committee Chair Amy Checkoway and newly-elected committee member Meghan Moriarty sought to keep the cuts to a minimum.

“I’m pretty concerned about cutting all freshmen sports in the high school, my sense is that ninth grade is a particularly stressful time academically and with that transition,” Checkoway said, while Moriarty pointed out that athletics and clubs are where “kids are gaining confidence, they learn life-long skills from these endeavors … and how to work together in a band and on a team” suggesting that any major cuts be delayed by a couple of years.

The reductions announced Tuesday are on top of the 11 total FTE reduction of existing staff Phelan provided at the last School Committee meeting two weeks ago. Those salaried reductions – making up 75 percent of the total school cuts – included four elementary teachers, one each from the Middle and High schools as well as a slew of administrator and teacher aides, totaling $635,000. A final determination on the specific teacher and staff member who will be made redundant will be determined next week.

But before those specific reductions are made public, 24 staff and administrative positions that supported the district’s COVID efforts will be pink-slipped on Friday, April 30 while 22 will return to their previous teaching and staffing slots.

Phelan’s “good news” is the possibility of sources of federal funds and any increase in state aid coming from the state legislature above Massachusetts Gov. Baker’s submission that could ease the pain of filling the deficit. He pointed to successfully using federal money last year in fiscal ’21 to pay for the one-year COVID related position and services.

Two sources of funds coming from Washington directed only to schools are the second and third installment of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund – known as ESSER funds – in which Belmont is in the process of applying for $1.4 million. Both funds have strict criteria; expenses have to apply to academics and instruction, address unfinished teaching and learning, and social emotional support to address mental health and well being to name a few.

Priority COVID services in ’22

Phelan and the committee have long sought to allocate ESSER II and III money to pay for anticipated services in the COVID related expenses in fiscal ’22. Those items – which Phelan called priorities totaling $876,000 – include:

  • Hiring teachers, aides and supplies to run an “academic recovery” summer school to service all grades ($100,000)
  • Adding a pair of nurses ($163,000),
  • Two social workers for mental health and social emotional learning ($163,000), and
  • Beefing up remote education with teachers, specialists and other material ($450,000)

There are a slew of other costs such as COVID testing, personal protective equipment and the “wedding” tents at each school to allow for outside classes and lunch.

But by only funding the four COVID priority items and redirect money from areas that may not longer be needed – the school committee could determine to eliminate an aggressive testing plan – Phelan indicated the schools would split the hoped for $1.4 million giving $750,000 to the COVID expenses and using $650,000 to restore three FTE positions at both the High and Middle schools as well as filling three Special Education slots.

While rearranging the ESSER funds will allow for the retention of a handful of positions, the greatest wish from the school committee is to get its hands into the most recent pot on money coming Belmont’s way. The American Rescue Plan Act signed in March by President Biden will provide the town upwards of $7.2 million which several committee members and the leaders of the No Override campaign are hopeful the ARP guidelines are loose enough to allow the town – which will receive the funds – to provide the schools with additional monies to apply to the district’s bottom line.

If federal regulators do determine the ARP funds can be optioned whatever way the town wishes, Phelan said he would work with Town Administrator Patrice Garvin to find a way to pay for all COVID costs, fill the $2.1 million fiscal ’22 deficit which will reverse the pink slips to the 11 teacher positions set for next month while restoring the 12 new FTE educator and staff slots which Phelan was anticipating to hire (for $870,000) until the override failed before sitting down and figure out a strategy for using the remaining change over the next two years.

But Phelan readily admits that it remains unknown if – and that is a big “if” – the federal government will allow any or all of the three funding sources to be used beyond reimbursing expenses directly impacted by the COVID pandemic. For example, under the ARP, Belmont can use the funds “to support the public health response and lay the foundation for a strong and equitable economic recovery” by providing “assistance to households, small businesses and nonprofits, aid to impacted industries, and support for essential workers” and “invest in infrastructure, including water, sewer, and broadband services.” There is no language currently that allows any portion of the $7 million to be transferred for school aid.

A second concern of using any federal funds or additional state aid to save educators positions – a worry championed by Geoffrey Lubien of the Financial Task Force – is that one-time funds are just that, money whose funding cycle ends after a single year and isn’t renewed. Phelan acknowledged that any additional position that could be saved in the coming fiscal year would need to be terminated on the final day of the 2022 school year.

“It’s important to me to say this out loud because when we start to talk about next school year and the potential use of federal funds … those dollars will only be one time dollars and they would not be able to carry into future years,” said Phelan.

But Phelan said despite the limited time frame of those funds, if allowed, he would hire teachers and administrators just for that one year, saying it is similar to someone who has crashed their car and despite having another vehicle ready to go “not using it for the year,” he said.

“We could use any of these (federal) dollars to support some parts of our school for the next year, even if we have to make layoffs in other areas,” said Phelan. “We just have to be flexible.”

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