The School Committee will hold an open hearing on Feb. 2 at 7 pm via the Zoom webinar link available on the meeting agenda, posted at Bedfordps.org—School Committee Agendas.
Then on Thursday evening, the administration and committee will review budget details with the Finance Committee. The Finance Committee recommendation is the one that is printed in the town meeting warrant.
Groundwork for the discussion is in place. Committee Chair Dan Brosgol said he has been participating in weekly budget discussions with School Superintendent Philip Conrad, Finance Director Julie Kirrane, Town Manager Sarah Stanton, and Finance Committee Chair Ben Thomas.
For the past month, the School Committee has been addressing three budget options. The first represents “maintenance of effort,” reflecting an increase over the current budget of about 3.8 percent. That’s three-tenths of a percent greater than the Finance Committee guideline for town and school increases in fiscal 2022.
The second adds personnel and other expenses related to continuing some pandemic considerations as all students return to the classroom (except for those who prefer a remote option). That version, a 7.4 percent increase over the current year’s spending, has been labeled the “recovery” budget.
The main driver for the higher cost is an expansion of the number of elementary school classrooms to cap them at 16 or 18 students each. That would sustain physical distancing and also facilitate recovery of lost learning during the pandemic year.
There is also a worst-case-scenario version in which the increase surpasses 12 percent; the committee has not discussed the details.
“The cuts we made last year enable us to be talking about 7.5 percent,” Brosgol observed at this week’s committee meeting. “I caution us about the attraction of numbers that make us feel good – I don’t know where I’ll land.”
School Committee member Brad Morrison said it would be more accurate to label the “recovery” budget as the “full-service” budget.
“I think what we’ve heard from our professional educators is that this is what the kids need,” Morrison commented. “It’s actually the minimum we think is going to be necessary to provide the right education for our children.”
Assistant Superintendent Tricia Clifford said small class sizes are not a panacea for restoring education compromised during the pandemic. “Teacher quality and the instructional model that you’re using have a really strong effect on student achievement,” she observed.
That will require professional development around differentiation, and more student-centered instruction, continuing the shift from “the teacher-directed model… We know the vast majority doesn’t often get their needs met that way. She also mentioned “a robust tiered intervention system” to address the opportunity gap.
The model calls for smaller class sizes and additional teachers in the elementary grades, and Morrison acknowledged that this “is not sustainable for the long term. But if we do what you talk about, we will reap the benefits for years.” The budget, he suggested, may be the gateway to such flexibility.
In answer to a question from committee member JoAnn Santiago, Conrad said variables include additional state and federal aid, the proliferation of the virus, and the success of vaccines. Santiago added out-of-district special education costs and the number of school buses needed to maintain social distancing.
Asked if other towns are considering a “recovery” budget, Conrad said, “conversations with other superintendents have been quite varied,” and some are reducing even their baseline budgets. “A few, like us, have done some scenario budgeting. Their numbers are similar to ours.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763