Jan. 5, 2021—“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” was a landmark Western film released in 1966. (And, yes, there’s always a Bedford connection – the familiar theme from the film was adopted as a theme song by the powerhouse BHS football teams of the 1970s.)
Fast-forward to Tuesday evening’s meeting of the School Committee: Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad presented details of three versions of a fiscal 2022 budget, as requested earlier by the committee.
The first one—“the good”—is based on a return to pre-pandemic conditions. The budget reflects a 3.75 percent increase over the current year. Then there’s a “Covid recovery” budget—“the bad.” The increase is 7.1 percent. And “the ugly”—representing all students in school and all current safety protocols—presents an increase of 11.8 percent. The Finance Committee has approved a 3.5 percent increase guideline for school and town budgets.
The committee will continue to focus on budget details at meetings on Jan. 12 and 18, followed by a statutory budget hearing on Jan. 26. The final vote is expected on Feb. 2, followed by a presentation to the Finance Committee on Feb. 4.
School Committee members Tuesday focused on the middle version, reflecting a scenario that they said could be realistic. Conrad defined it as promoting educational recovery during “a tapering pandemic.” The proposal totals $45,035,472, an increase over the current budget of almost $3 million.
“The recovery budget assumes we would have some protocols with everybody back,” the superintendent said. “It would limit the years of ripple effect this is going to cause,” said Assistant Superintendent Tricia Clifford.
The proposal addresses pandemic-related lost learning by reducing the size of classes at Davis and Lane Schools from 22 to 18 and 16 respectively. Conrad said this would foster “individualized education. This would allow us to recover academically and continue the relationship-building that we know students and teachers are going to need.” Committee member Ann Guay said studies show the benefits of these smaller classes.
The reduced classroom sizes would have a $900,000 impact on the personnel budget. Additional furniture, curriculum supplies, and equipment for 11 new classrooms in Davis and Lane Schools would cost $140,000. There also will be a need for additional teachers in the middle school, the high school, and special educators.
Other increases are more than $100,000 in additional technology costs; “online curriculum tools to support what we’re doing in remote and hybrid learning” most of which has to be renewed; $242,000 for protective equipment, sanitation, advanced filtration, and additional professional development.
“It’s a little unclear what we get for this money,” commented School Committee member Brad Morrison. He urged the superintendent to “bring this to life a little bit more. We need to explain what kind of difference this is going to make for one year, being supportive yet responsible.”
Committee Chair Dan Brosgol asked, “Do we really know what ‘tapering pandemic’ means?” Conrad conceded that “this changes from day-to-day. Ideally, all of our educators will be vaccinated but still masked. I wish I knew what it looked like.” Brosgol said Conrad’s budget “may underestimate the expense.” He added, “I can’t envision what that budget looks like in practice other than 16 or 18 kids in a class.”
“I don’t disagree that we are underestimating the potential recovery cost,” Conrad acknowledged, noting that he could budget for additional counselors and classroom assistants. “At the same time, there is a fiduciary responsibility. I think this budget balances those two things.”
“We may be required to offer a remote option for families who want to opt-out. How much is that going to cost?” Brosgol asked, adding, “I don’t think this is inclusive of the complexity of a virus we are still dealing with.”
In answer to a question from Morrison, Clifford said currently this should be considered as a one-year make-up period.
Julie Kirrane, the schools’ finance director, expressed hope that increases could be mitigated by federal legislation “supportive of direct Covid impact expenses. We don’t exactly know how that is going to play out, but we do have expenses built into the recovery budget that may be supported.” The total is about $300,000, she said, for personal protective equipment, Zoom licenses, technology, and sanitation.
The baseline budget of $43,606,930—an increase of $1,575,471—reflects “maintenance of effort and some increase programmatically that we need,” Conrad said.
Salaries are projected to increase by 2.8 percent, Conrad’s budget says, but the category of “operations” reflects a 5.7 rise over the current year. There is a projected increase of 3 to 4 percent in supplies and contracted building services. There are also technology lease buyouts.
One reason it is difficult to adhere to the Finance Committee’s guideline is that “extra sources of support have really dropped away,” said Conrad.
The baseline budget also sustains higher costs of out-of-district special education tuition, and Conrad said the $450,000 reserve in this category provided by town meeting for the current year will be needed again. The budget projects a level number of placements. The superintendent said he foresees no higher costs of special education transportation.
Kirrane outlined the budgeted additions, mostly personnel costs, and many already put into place partly funded by grants from the federal CARES act. The net total for the new employees is $317,000 which includes savings from consolidating and reducing redundancies, Conrad said.
Two additional positions are targeted to accommodate the SAIL program moving to the middle school. SAIL is designed to serve students with educational needs related to an autism spectrum disorder and related disabilities.
Other staff increases are proposed for special education-related services, counseling, English language learners, and grade 3 mathematics. There also is an executive assistant for human resources in the central office.
Committee member Joann Santiago suggested budgeting for summer programming that would benefit some students. And in answer to her question Conrad said he has not budgeted for Covid testing but has discussed options for faculty and students with Heidi Porter, town director of health and human services. He added that he is hoping for federal or state funding.
Conrad’s third budget scenario—“the ugly”—totals $46,977,368, an increase of almost $5 million. “This is what nobody wants,” Kirrane said. “This is not going to fly. This is Monopoly money. But we should still talk about it,” Brosgol asserted.
This budget assumes all students have returned but conditions are no different than now. Class sizes would be limited to 16 to maintain physical distancing, Conrad said, assuming that it remains the standard of the Centers for Disease Control and prevention.
The “devastating cost” would cover 18 additional middle school teachers and another 14 in the high school, and more special education teachers. Perhaps this could be mitigated by fewer paraprofessionals in lower density classrooms, Conrad offered.
Brosgol noted that there is a value to the exercise. “This says why we can’t do it right now for everyone, and it’s extremely compelling to me.” He added that it also points out “the value of what we have done so far for smaller numbers,” and will “inform our conversation about spring.”
Conrad said he and his colleagues in the region “are all trying to figure out what the world is going to look like and how to prepare for that.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763
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