School Committee moving ahead with three-pronged budget approach

Exterior of the newly built Lucretia and Joesph Brown Elementary School in Marblehead on Monday. Photo by Libby O'Neill

The School Committee will be prepared to essentially three different budget proposals to the Finance Committee later this month, as officials continue to grapple with a looming budget deficit in the town that could force severe cuts across the board in the school department.

Superintendent John Buckey explained that the district is moving forward with what he dubbed an “austerity budget” with numerous positions cut that represents operations should an override not pass at Town Meeting on May 1 or at the annual election on June 20.

But, he said, officials also crafted a “keep the lights on” budget that represents level service costs, including contractual obligations, special education, and transportation. He also presented the committee with an aspirational budget that represents additional programs the district would like to implement.

The town has yet to close the books on spending and Buckey said the district still does not have a concrete allocation in hand with which to plan around. That figure could be as high as $850,000, he said, but for now the district is “in limbo.”

No specific value has been assigned to the override for the schools, and Committee Chair Sarah Fox raised the possibility that it could pass and still not cover all of the district’s level service costs. She pressed for reaching an agreement with the town that the override would cover out-of-district tuition and utility costs.

“What we’re saying is, they’ll give us what we need to keep our lights on, not what we need to meet the needs of our students,” she said. “We’re not gilding our lily here.”

The committee also raised the possibility of exploring alternate funding sources to help cover costs — not just those in the level service budget, but also those included in Buckey’s aspirational budget, including additional mental health services, curriculum coordinators, and STEAM curriculum.

Committee member Tom Mathers suggested that the committee push forward with a proposal to create a revolving account for Chapter 70 monies that could be used to help offset some of the costs.

Chapter 70 is a state program delivering aid to public schools, and Mathers said it would make sense to have the funds under the purview of the schools. Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Michelle Cresta said the money remains under the town’s control barring a special act of the legislature or a vote from Town Meeting.

“I personally do not know of any district that spends their Chapter 70 directly or uses it directly,” she said.

In fiscal year 2023, Marblehead received roughly $6.2 million in Chapter 70 aid, according to state records. Governor Maura Healey’s FY24 budget proposes a small increase in aid for the district — with $6.27 million set to go to Marblehead. Healey’s budget was submitted to the Legislature last week but will likely not be finalized until the summertime.

The committee also discussed the possibility of going to the town and asking for additional American Rescue Plan Act funds for one-time expenses as an avenue for closing the gap between level-service costs and aspirational costs.

Buckey said the district received roughly $500,000 from the $6 million allocation in COVID-19 related American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money the town received.

Fox noted the particularly forceful impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the schools, and lobbied Buckey to push for additional ARPA funds. She also proposed appealing to the mental health task force for money to fund those programs, with the task force getting $1 million in ARPA funds.

There are “multiple creative solutions,” she said.

The committee is set to convene March 16 before a budget hearing on March 21. A vote on the budget is set for March 23, ahead of a Finance Committee meeting March 27.

Mathers said the school department has to own a piece of the “massive structural deficit” facing the town, and added that it is incumbent on the committee to help town leaders “scrub as best as we can.”

“At the end of the day, they’re going to give us what they’re going to give us and we’re going to have to sing for our supper,” he said.