The Finance Committee on Sept. 23 unanimously voted to recommend that the Nov. 1 special town meeting approve a $700,000 reduction in the fiscal 2022 reserve fund, resulting from anticipated savings and federal reimbursements.
The proposed amended budget is one of eight articles on the warrant, which closes on Wednesday.
The fiscal 2022 reserve fund totals $3 million, of which $1.9 million was added by annual town meeting in May to ensure that the schools had the resources for recovery from Covid-19 exigencies.
Currently, School Superintendent Philip Conrad told the committee, “A more realistic number is $1.2 million or less.”
Conrad said he and Julie Kirrane, director of finance for the schools, have identified as much as they could that qualifies for the federal reimbursement programs. “Everything that is ARPA or ESSER eligible we are charging off to those accounts,” he said in answer to a question. “And we continue to look for all of those things. We continue to talk about how can we make sure we understand eligibility and using existing grants to reduce any costs.”
“With all the work that has been done, I feel comfortable reducing it by $700,00,” Conrad said.
However, he stressed, “I wouldn’t want to go too much farther than that. We are only in the first few weeks of school.” Conrad offered a few possible sources of additional expense: custodial overtime needed to completely disinfect; augmenting the nurse headcount; substitute teachers; “We won’t know for sure until we go through the winter.”
One expense covered by the federal grant was summer school, which was directly related to Covid-19. “Ordinarily that is something we never would do. That’s the kind of above-and-beyond expenditure.”
But “everything in our maintenance of effort budget is considered normal expenditures,” Conrad continued. There are still savings, however. For example, the original plans were to hire nine new teachers; only six were needed.
Committee member David Powell commented, “I still feel we could get close to the $1.1 million tax appropriation amount. But there has been a reasonable rationalization for the $700,000.”
“This is still a moving target, an evolving situation,” said committee Chair Steve Carluccio. “We are not at the final version of these issues.” Member Karen Dunn concurred: “I think this is the new reality of juggling the budget in an ongoing pandemic. I think our best strategy is to maintain flexibility.”
“If you had asked me in July, I would have given you a very rosy picture of what the school year was going to look like,” Conrad said. “But July sunk into August, and right now all of our students are in school but we have a statewide mask mandate.”
The six-foot distancing requirement is history, Conrad said, but the schools are still using a separation standard of three feet. “The number of close contacts has exploded this school year – there are cases where we have 20 to 30 close contacts — but under test-and-stay we are continuing to test our students. If they are asymptomatic and test negative, they can go to class and that has been huge for us.”
Conrad said the financial effort has been “a partnership with the town – everybody wants to do what’s right for kids. Everybody wants to work together. We protect our taxpayers. We protect our kids. We protect our faculty and staff. We give them a first-class education.”
Town Manager Sarah Stanton told the committee that the town is targeted for about $2 million in ARPA grants. Eligible expenditures, which cover both schools and municipal departments, have “very specific parameters.” Reimbursement for Covid-related thresholds have to cross “certain thresholds,” she said.
Between eligible school and municipal categories, “We identified everything ARPA-eligible. It’s sort of like building a plane in the air.”
“Our auditors deemed $400,000 ARPA eligible,” she said, and other potential reimbursable possibilities include supplemental nursing staff and water purchase.
The Finance Committee also recommended that special town meeting approve a series of amendments to the zoning bylaw concerning The Great Road business district, as well as an additional $84,506 to the Shawsheen Technical High School budget to cover additional students enrolled from Bedford.
The committee voted 4-3 to recommend approval to renew the 3 percent assessment for community preservation. The committee realized that the vote was invalid because a majority of the full nine-member committee is required, and two were absent. The community preservation assessment vote will be reconsidered at a future meeting.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763