School Budget Planning Challenged By COVID-19

By: Kat Szmit

Topics: Monomoy Regional School District , Education , Municipal Finance

The Monomoy School District's reopening plan was approved this week by the school committee, with school starting in September. File Photo

HARWICH – School budget planning is typically a challenging yearly task, but the planning of the FY21 budget for the Monomoy Regional School District has been further complicated by COVID closures and reschedules, forcing the district to opt for a one-twelfth budget as administrators await funding approval from town meetings.

With Chatham’s town meeting not scheduled until June 22 and Harwich having postponed theirs until September, the Monomoy School Committee had to vote to follow the monthly one-twelfth budget process allowed by the state. The committee voted unanimously during their May 28 meeting to approve a FY21 budget of $41,449,432, but with caveats given the unknowns regarding town meetings.

While Chatham is expected to vote its approval of the budget originally submitted by the school district prior to the closures and rescheduling of meetings, it is unclear what Harwich will do during its September meeting.

Under the one-twelfth budget process, the school department can spend up to one-twelfth of the current budget per month until the FY21 budget is finalized.

Of greatest concern regarding the one-twelfth budget was determining the amount of excess and deficiency — similar to a town's free cash — funding to use. While the department of elementary and secondary education allows districts to use less than the amount decided upon, school districts cannot use more.

Using numbers put forth by the state in January, the committee voted to approve the use of $1.7 million in E&D funds toward the FY21 budget, with Superintendent Scott Carpenter cautioning that the final overall budget could change dramatically depending upon town meeting outcomes and the impact of the COVID pandemic on schools reopening in the fall.

“A concern I have is that in towns like ours that are so dependent upon a tourist economy [is that] you have to be concerned about what the schools will look like if there is this big fiscal hole,” Carpenter said. “Less staff means less options in programs for kids.”

Carpenter stated that reductions in staff and programs would be a likelihood. A planned English Language Arts curriculum that would have been put into place during the 2020-2021 school year has been delayed until the next, and a hard look is being taken at the Make Way For Kids program, as well.

“I don’t see a budget scenario that would allow us to continue the program,” Carpenter said.

In the past, Make Way For Kids, a preschool program supporting high-needs families in Chatham and Harwich, was funded by grants that have now all but dried up, requiring the school district to fund the program out of pocket, something Carpenter isn't certain will be possible given the financial impacts of the COVID crisis.

“We’re trying to forecast what the budget situation looks like in each town to know what each town can support in FY21,” Carpenter said during the May 21 school committee meeting. “I think the towns might be in very different places. Can they support our FY21 the way we had it, prior to COVID-19?”

Carpenter said a list has been compiled of staff and programs the district won’t be able to support should the numbers fall with the loss of revenues in both Chatham and Harwich due to the pandemic.

Right now, the possible staff cuts involve 13.5 full-time positions across Monomoy’s schools and include both clerical and teaching positions. For example, in Chatham, where the kindergarten enrollment is low enough not to warrant two classes, there is a possibility of eliminating one teacher and one teaching assistant. Preschool enrollment, Carpenter said, is even lower.

“Just as we have very little kindergarten enrollment at CES, we have very little enrollment at the preschool level,” he said, adding that there are two students enrolled in the program for 3-year-olds. “We could easily absorb any incoming 3-year-olds into the 4-year-old part of program, creating a combined program.”

The move would allow reduction of a .5 FTE teaching position and a .5 FTE teaching assistant at Chatham Elementary School. Other reductions could include a middle school math teacher, a high school ELA teacher, a high school art teacher, a half-time custodian, and a clerical position at Harwich Elementary, as well as a high school special education teacher and an instructional assistant.

“What we’ve tried to do is look at positions where we have retirements or resignations and ask the tough question: ‘Can we not fill this and still provide the services we need for families?’” Carpenter said, adding that doing so would limit “having to have the tough conversations with staff around not having a job.”

Carpenter noted that district administrators had conversations with roughly 10 staffers, five support staff and five teachers who would be vulnerable if staffing reductions were necessary. The ideal, Carpenter said, is not only finding a budget that works for FY21, but also sets the district up financially for FY22.

“There is a high likelihood that we’ll have to do further reductions to get to the [ideal],” he said. “The cuts that we had talked about get us halfway there. [This will] buy us some time until we get some clarity from Harwich. Then we can work with both towns on coming up with an approach on FY21 so that we can maintain quality services.”

Until town meetings, and until the state has a better grasp on its numbers, the final shape of the school budget will likely remain unclear.

“We’re voting a temporary exercise to give to the state,” Carpenter said at the May 28 meeting. “We are not locked into a one-twelfth budget. We’re locked into whatever both towns come into agreement upon after town meetings. Once the towns vote on their budgets at town meeting, we’ll have a full budget.”