Select Board Approves Two Uses of ARPA Funds

Reading, MA — After a presentation by Superintendent of Schools Thomas Milaschewski along with a team of teachers and administrators from the School Department, the Select Board voted 5-0 to allocate $2 million of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for the purpose of purchasing and rolling out a new literacy curriculum over the next three years. Milaschewski shared with the board that this request was “[the district’s] one big priority” and its “best spend-to-save effort.” Milaschewski cited the thirty-six percent of Reading students, including fifty-nine percent of African-American students, who do not read at grade level, as among the reasons why the request fits the ARPA guideline of addressing pandemic learning loss and as well as addressing educational disparities in the district.

Several residents spoke in favor of the request, including Reading ARPA Advisory Committee (RAAC) chair Marianne Downing. “This is a bargain compared to what the schools usually ask for,” Downing stated.

Both teachers and administrators spoke to the quality of the requested curriculum, noting its high rating by EdReports, and Curate. Wood End Elementary School Principal Joanne King also shared enthusiasm about the professional development for teachers and administrators that are included in the curriculum. “We need to shift to [principals being] educational leaders and not operations managers,” King added.

School Committee chair Thomas Wise emphasized the School Committee’s unity in its vote to recommend the request. Wise cited “the energy in the room” as the curriculum was shared with them by the teachers. “This is the single investment that has a chance to save this town money,” Wise declared. Wise continued by imploring the Select Board to seek unanimity in its vote as well.

Select Board chair Mark Dockser, who voted against the recommendation as a member of RAAC, shared that after considerable thought, several conversations with Milaschewski, and after hearing from residents on the issue, he had come to believe that the ARPA funds were the way “to get this done.” Select Board member Carlo Bacci supported the move, noting that the purchase could help “kick an override down the road.” Select Board member Karen Herrick shared concern over the timing of the request but expressed confidence that the school department would continue to seek out grants and other funding sources to mitigate the expense.

“I am confident that we can pull together and make this happen,” Herrick announced.

The Select Board also voted 5-0 to approve the use of $650,000 of ARPA funding to cover the cost of capital expenditures in the water enterprise fund. “The goal is to give some help to the community right now,” Dockser suggested. Following this vote, the board then voted 5-0 to set the water rate at $11.41 per 100 cubic feet and the sewer rate at $10.86 per 100 cubic feet. The combined increase for water and sewer rates will be 2.2%. This increase was achieved through the use of $650,000 in water reserves and $450,000 in sewer reserves. Both Bacci and Select Board member Chris Haley expressed concern about dwindling water reserves and what could happen to rates two to three years out, but both supported the move to keep rates lower at the moment. The board also voted 5-0 to keep stormwater rates the same as last year. Residents will see the new rates in their December 2022 water bills.

The Select Board voted 5-0 to approve amendments to the non-union classification chart, noting the promotion of the Staff Planner to Senior Planner and the addition of the Economic Development Director to the chart. Both were approved as part of the Fiscal Year 2023 budget approved by Town Meeting.

Town Manager Fidel Maltez reported that Town Counsel had given a legal opinion that allowing a person or group to fly a flag from the town flag pole on the common would mean that all requests to fly a flag from the pole would have to be honored. Maltez continued, “Best practice is not to make the flag pole a place of speech.” Haley lamented the fact that this would mean that a Pride flag could not be flown from the pole for Pride Month but recognized the potential liability to the town. “Better to have had it for one year than not at all,” Haley stated. Select Board member Jackie McCarthy agreed with the approach warning against “turning the flag pole into a public forum.” The board will monitor legal developments on the issue as they occur.

The board voted 5-0 to proclaim Public Works Week in Reading. It also voted 5-0 to make a Pride month proclamation and voted 5-0 to proclaim the Juneteenth holiday. The board also voted 5-0 to approve an inter-municipal agreement with Wakefield and Lynnfield for the Director of Assessment. The new agreement adds Lynnfield to the region and will provide modest savings to the town. Maltez also indicated that should the current director, Victor Santaniello, choose to leave, the combined salary from the three towns would be a more competitive and attractive one for future candidates.

Town Accountant Sharon Angstrom provided a quarterly update to the board. Angstrom reported that in both the general fund and in the enterprise funds, revenue and expenditures are on track to meet projections.

The Select Board adjourned at 10:15 pm.

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