School Committee Addresses Budget Concerns

Reading, MA — After a two-hour-long executive session, the School Committee commenced a review of possible changes to the proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget. The suggested changes were made after the COVID-19 situation has caused revised municipal revenue projections. This, together with lower than expected enrollment in full-day kindergarten and the RISE preschool, has created potentially $430,000 that needs to be cut from the budget.

Director of Finance Gail Dowd gave the committee a detailed rundown of what is proposed. Administrative costs would be reduced by $79,935. The bulk of which is the elimination of payroll and human resources specialist, a position that is presently unfilled. There is also a reduction of $179,357 in regular day expenses which includes a $63,000 cut in district-wide curriculum expenditures, $50,000 in professional development, and one teaching position. The teaching position is one that is not filled and due to the lower-than-anticipated enrollment in kindergarten, it will not be needed. There is also a $25,000 cut in technology replacements and all non-union represented staff will have a 1% reduction in the cost of living adjustment as well.

Dowd also described what she referred to as a list of unknowns for next year, primarily due to the lack of clarity as to how school operations will occur next year. “Unknown is a common theme.” School Committee chair Chuck Robinson quipped.

Robinson then restated his belief that the budget should not be cut, but that the town’s free cash reserves should be used to cover the cuts, stating that with so many unknowns it is impossible to prioritize cuts at this time. After discussion, committee member Thomas Wise proposed that the committee vote petition the Finance Committee send the school department budget to Town Meeting as originally proposed in January. This motion was tabled due to time considerations and the committee anticipates scheduling a short meeting on Monday, May 18 prior to the Finance Committee meeting to conclude the discussion.

Dowd also shared updates to school buildings that have been made to prepare for a fall opening, including the installation of plexiglass shielding in offices. She also provided a week-to-week plan for the schools to transition staff back to the buildings. The plan dates are contingent on the status of the governor’s stay-at-home order. Plans include allowing full-year staff one or two at a time back to the offices during the week of May 18, teachers to settle classrooms and retrieve belongings during the week of May 25, and students picking up belongings during the weeks of June 1 and June 8. Loaned computers, textbooks, and other materials would be returned by students during the week of June 22. Dowd stressed again that these plans could change if the governor extends the stay at home order.

The committee also listened to administrative reports and voted 6-0 to renew the Inter-Municipal Agreement with Wakefield regarding the shared food services director. The committee discussion regarding social media was postponed to the May 28 meeting.

The School Committee adjourned at 10:00 pm.

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