School Committee Hears a Trio of Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Proposals

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Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad presented three versions of a fiscal 2022 education budget to the School Committee last Tuesday night.

One of the proposals, which presumes a return to a normal school format, is $43,606,93, representing a 3.75 percent increase over the current year. The Finance Committee guideline for the school and municipal budget is 3.5 percent.

The two other iterations, both of which assume continuing some or all of the current pandemic safety protocols, are nowhere near the guideline. Indeed, he called one of them the “apocalyptic budget.”

“This is our request for information, not our preferences. We must take three scenarios into consideration,” stressed committee Chair Dan Brosgol. Members of the School Committee will be digesting the budget details over the next two weeks, with the next meeting scheduled for Jan. 5, 2021.

Regarding the least expensive proposal, Conrad explained, “We want the resources to support all in, with a remote option; to meet all of the needs of all of our learners; advance improvement goals; and strive to meet the 3.5 percent.”

He acknowledged that, even assuming normal operations, “the baseline budget is unable to fully address full recovery because of an expected financial impact of the continuing pandemic environment.”

So even with students back in class, Conrad anticipates a continuing need for additional personal protective equipment, custodians, technology, and rentals. “But our hope is, with the diminishing pandemic, we can recover.”

Conrad presented a categorical overview at the Dec.22 meeting. Under the standard plan, he expects a combined 3 percent increase in salaries, operations, special education, and transportation. The computation includes renewal of the $450,000 from the Finance Committee reserve for out-of-district special education costs, he noted.

The superintendent outlined additional needs: a net increase of 5.6 full-time equivalent positions in special education, counseling, support for English-language learners. The personnel additions, offset by some staff restructuring, is a net increase of $317,554. Conrad noted that there also would be another $64,400 in employee benefits absorbed by the town.

The second version Conrad presented, which he labeled the recovery budget, reflects an increase over the current year of about $3 million, or 7.1 percent. It presumes all students returning to school,  but with smaller class sizes—between 16 and 18—to help them recover academically from the exigencies of the prior year-plus.

This proposal calls for 10 additional teachers in kindergarten through fifth grade and four in the upper grades, as well as two special education teachers. The added personnel costs are estimated at $1.4 million, plus about $100,000 in benefits covered in the municipal budget, Conrad said.

The third iteration, which Conrad called the continuing pandemic budget, adds 28 middle and high school teachers and five at Lt. Job Lane School for an additional $5.4 million plus $310,000 in benefits. The proposal also adds furniture and supplies for additional class sections and includes costs for additional protective equipment, custodial supplies, and access to online and remote learning tools

The budget, reflecting an increase of almost 12 percent, does not include costs for renting additional space.

“Both the second and third budgets need refinement. These are our best guess [estimates] based on scenarios we continue to see,” Conrad said. “We will continue to evolve, with any changes or refinements based on health and safety protocols,” as well as additional space requirements.

“We are trying to balance increasing cases while on the threshold of a Covid vaccine. It’s an interesting time to be trying to predict.”

Committee member JoAnn Santiago agreed that the situation is evolving. She asked if there is funding in any of the versions to address students’ socio-emotional well-being. “We made some increases this year that we would like to keep,” the superintendent replied. Member Ann Guay inquired about funding for summer services; “we probably need to think about it.”

Member Brad Morison observed, “We should not be trying to predict. It is about preparing. The budget should prepare us for whatever scenario unfolds.”

He applauded the option of smaller classes designed for pandemic-related learning needs. “I like what you’re doing,” he stated. Assistant Superintendent Tricia Clifford replied that “reducing class size is a really important recovery measure.” She said data show that approaches like targeted instruction; workshops, particularly in writing; and a smaller environment will build student-teacher trust.

Member Sarah Scoville asked about the long-term prospects for new teachers hired under this scenario, and Finance Director Julie Kirrane replied that it is too soon to know.

Committee Chair Dan Brosgol injected the financial considerations inherent in the budget process. “This is not an ask-for-everything kind of year,” he said. The expanded classes version is “a huge ask. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. We need to really dig deep for the tough choices.”

“This is going to require a lot of work,” said Guay. “We are so focused on protocol that we haven’t thought about this.”

“We have to remind ourselves [of] what we value: a comprehensive education for our students; that reading and writing are fundamental; we have supportive parents and incredible educators,” asserted Conrad.

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763
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