FinCom approves slashed school budget

Marblehead’s Abbot Hall. Photo by Spenser Hasak

The Finance Committee on Monday voted to approve the $44.8 million reduced-services budget put forward by the School Department that includes severe cuts across the board. It did not vote on the level-services budget contingent on the passage of a proposition 2 ½ override, citing a lack of information.

The committee also voted to approve budgets put forward by the Assessors’ Department and the Cemetery Department. Town departments across the board were forced to cut expenses by a combined total of roughly $2.5 million, due in part to declining amounts of free cash and the need to put forward a balanced budget.

Earlier Monday, the School Committee convened briefly to approve a pair of budgets — the reduced services budget, which sees the elimination of 33 jobs and a number of programs, including freshman sports — and a level services budget, which represents the costs of keeping all existing programs and services in place. The level services budget request totals $46 million, contingent on Town Meeting and voters at the annual election approving the override, which would permanently increase the town’s tax levy.

Committee Chair Sarah Fox said she intended to ask the FinCom for support on both budgets.

Superintendent of Schools John Buckey walked Finance Committee members through the department’s proposed budget, explaining that, much like the town’s budget, expenses on the school side outpaced revenue. The department is facing contractual obligations representing a roughly 4 percent increase over the previous year, an unprecedented 14 percent spike in out-of-district tuition, and a 38 percent increase in utlitity costs.

Buckey cited the minimal increase in Chapter 70 dollars headed to the town in fiscal year 2024 — just a 1.29 percent increase over the previous year — as a key area where the district has suffered comparatively. He noted that many of the commonwealth’s wealthiest communities were set to see far bigger increases than Marblehead in state aid dedicated to education.

“The basic formula is broken. It seems no one has a good answer for how the formula operates,” he said. “It seems communities … that have not had as robust an investment [in schools] are almost being penalized.”

Enrollment is a “big part” of the budget process, Buckey said, adding that it is projected to remain essentially unchanged in the coming school year.

Even under the level services budget approved by the School Committee, the department would eliminate seven vacant positions and repurpose three. The 33 positions axed from the reduced services budget include a librarian at the Veterans Middle School, two high school science teachers, a PE teacher at the Village School, and a tutor at the Brown School, among others.

Fox said she is “startled” every time she sees the full list of positions that could be eliminated.

Buckey, who presented the School Committee with what he dubbed an aspirational budget at the start of the process, said district officials have put forward a proposal to use American Rescue Plan Act funds, as it became clear the town and the schools were facing a budget shortfall. These funds would cover some of the items in that document that were eliminated.

As a result of the cuts, Fox said, the district can’t “build anything” to move it forward in terms of new programs that could bring students in who might otherwise go out of district or any other systems that might aid students.

FinCom Vice Chair Cam Staples said he would like to see some of the items presented in the aspirational budget be folded into budgets moving forward, as they could wind up being money-savers for the town.

“As we go ahead I’m hopeful some of those can be brought back to the conversation,” he said. “I know that’s not possible next year but I appreciate that that’s in your list of aspirational items.”

FinCom Chair Alec Goolsby acknowledged that FY24 was set to be a “difficult year” with the town hitting a “fiscal cliff.”

“Our revenues are really limited and we’ve hit that breaking point where we have to go for an override just to balance,” he said.

After Goolsby moved to approve the reduced services budget, which committee members did unanimously, Fox requested that the committee also vote on the level services budget her committee had approved. But, Goolsby said, with details of the override still vague, the committee could not do so.

The committee will likely vote on the level-services budget at the warrant hearing set for April 10.

School Committee member Sarah Gold said it was “really difficult” to hear about different town departments being gutted, while others have their budgets reduced by a lower amount. While she acknowledged that the town didn’t benefit when departments were pitted against one another, she said listening to the bevy of cuts that could come to the schools was difficult, especially when compared with other departments that “don’t have to give up anything.”

“It’s really hard when I have to tell a student that they’re not going to have access to their freshman sports or that they’re going to have a more difficult time getting their teacher to answer their question in their fifth grade class because we had to gut some of our departments,” she said during the meeting’s public comment period.

But, Goolsby noted that the FinCom had not been presented with the full details of the override and that there would likely be “significant cuts” in other areas to be reviewed by the committee.