Marblehead School Committee holds intense talks on FY24 budget

A debate over which Marblehead Public Schools positions and services will be cut, as well as how a fiscal year 2023 surplus should be spent ignited at the School Committee’s first meeting since the override’s failure.

The School Committee held the intense discussion on the district’s budget for FY24 on June 29. As a result of the override’s failure on the town-wide ballot, the district is now forced to use a reduced-services budget for FY24, which began on July 1. As it stands, the reduced-services budget will result in 33 district positions being cut. 

The committee meeting was the first since the town election on June 20, when Brian Ota and Jen Schaeffner also earned two committee seats up for grabs.

The discussion got underway with talks about the use of surplus money from FY23. Committee Chair Sarah Fox stated that the entire surplus should be used to repay tuitions. A portion of it would go to special-education tuitions, which could potentially help bring back some positions that would be cut. 

“That frees up some money in next year’s budget that we would then charge our administrators with coming back to us with a list, very quickly, about what would be prioritized to come back into our budget,” she said. 

She asked Superintendent John Buckey and Assistant Superintendent of Operations Michelle Cresta if they could recommend that scenario, however, both stated that they would not.

Buckey said that he had some uncomfortable conversations with the leadership team after previously attempting to prioritize the 33 positions that would be cut, and that it is extremely difficult to justify which positions at different schools should get priority. 

Cresta said that she plans to repay some of the tuitions with the surplus, and warned the committee that the special-education tuition fund should not be reduced to avoid one-time revenues that would create an unbalanced budget for FY25. 

Schaeffner expressed concern about the loss of freshman sports, calling the move to cut the nine teams that participate in freshman athletics ”punitive.”

“I feel very strongly that freshman sports need to be reinstated as an item,” she said. “I think that, in a $43 million budget, it’s a very small amount of money.”

According to Buckey, the total budget for freshman sports would be $40,000, with $16,000 of that going toward coaching stipends. 

In response, Ota said that he believes education should be prioritized given the current state of the district.

“I think academics take precedence over sports at this point,” Ota said. “For instance, we’re losing the librarian at the middle school. We absolutely need librarians today, and they’re not just librarians.” 

Buckey also responded to Schaeffner’s comments, refuting her claim that the move was excessive.

“Every administrator had difficult decisions with the people in their programs,” Buckey said. “For us to come back and undermine the superintendent, undermine the leadership team, asking them to go back and look as if they had not, is a mistake.”

After vigorously advocating for its return, Schaeffner made a motion to reinstate freshman athletics this fall. However, it failed to pass, with two votes in favor and two against. Fox said that the motion could be made again at next week’s meeting. 

After some intense discussion, Fox spoke to those in attendance in person and online.

“I want to be abundantly clear to everyone in this room, everyone on Zoom, and everyone reading about this tomorrow or next week. Mass General Law in the state of Massachusetts gives the sole authority for this budget to the elected officials at this table,” Fox said firmly. “It is not us not trusting people we work with. It is not us playing games. It is us doing our job, which we were elected and sworn in to do. An assertion to anything but that, is simply an unawareness of law.”

Earlier during the public-comment portion of the meeting, Paul Baker, one of the candidates who ran for School Committee this year, attempted to question Ota on an alleged complaint against the school district.

“Mr. Ota, having been elected to serve our schools, will you now withdraw your wrongful-dismissal complaint against the district?” Baker alleged. 

Before the question could be answered, Fox immediately jumped in, saying that she could not allow the statement Baker made as it violated the collective bargaining agreement. 

The committee also voted on its refiguring. Fox retained her position as committee chair, Schaeffner was named vice chair, and Committee member Alison Taylor took over as secretary.