School Committee delays vote on budget cuts

In a meeting that straggled on for more than three hours Monday night, the School Committee debated proposed changes to the school district’s fiscal 2020 budget—and then put off any vote until its next meeting.

Superintendent Linda Dwight presented a list of cuts to meet the $150,000 reduction recommended by the Finance Committee, although the Select Board has not yet officially accepted that recommendation. School Committee members appeared almost ready to reluctantly accept those cuts. But then Dwight asked them to approve stipends for four people who were either working many extra hours this year or had achieved sizable savings for the district by their efforts. That juxtaposition of cuts and increases left the board stymied.

Cuts could eliminate three positions

When the Select Board and Finance Committee first said they might ask the schools to cut $150,000 or more from their fiscal 2020 budget, Dwight warned that such large cuts would force the schools to reduce staff. And indeed the cuts she listed this week showed the schools losing a reading tutor, a kindergarten aide, and an occupational therapist.

Other major cuts included limiting the curriculum work that teachers usually do during summer, as well as eliminating a summer secretarial position. Dwight also proposed dropping special tutoring for the MCAS tests. She said few students availed themselves of the service, and the focus on test results conflicted with the schools’ overall philosophy. Committee member John Ruark said he had some concerns about any adverse effect on the ratings parents considered when deciding to move to Harvard.

Reducing field trip expenses, postponing the purchase of books and graphing calculators, delaying a copier lease, and other cuts brought the total budget reduction a little above the required $150,000.

Newly appointed committee member Sharlene Cronin asked how the schools could evaluate the outcomes of these cuts for students. Dwight replied that it would be difficult to judge the impact of any single cut because so many factors go into the calculations. But she said she would ask teachers to keep track of evidence and data.

“We are going into next year at less than level service,” Ruark said later in the meeting, echoing comments Dwight had made on previous occasions. “And we are counting on making it up through the hard work of the teachers.”

Stipend requests derail discussion

For the sake of transparency, Dwight said, she also wanted to bring committee members her request for additional spending in this year’s budget. She asked for stipends to increase fiscal 2019 pay for four key administrators—elementary school Principal Josh Myler and Associate Principal Scott Mulcahy, Facilities Director Jon Snyer, and District Chef Paul Correnty.

Dwight sought $5,000 each for Myler, Mulcahy, and Snyer, who were all hired in the past two years. She noted that all three had been brought in at substantially lower pay than their predecessors because they were “unknowns” at the time. But she said all three were far exceeding expectations, with Myler and Mulcahy taking on many added responsibilities resulting from the school building project and Snyer saving the district major expenses in repairs and maintenance. She also sought a $3,000 stipend for Chef Paul, saying he had never gotten a financial award for all his efforts to bring fresh, local produce to the schools’ food program.

Dwight proposed paying for the fiscal 2019 stipends from the Devens fund, which is expected to have a balance of about $970,000 at the end of this school year. This fund holds money MassDevelopment pays the district to educate students who live in Devens. She also asked the committee to allow for continuing the stipends in next year’s budget.

Dwight’s stipend requests threw the budget discussion into confusion. Committee member Shannon Molloy said she was uncomfortable “with the juxtaposition of the stipends with the cuts we are making.” Ruark suggested reducing the amount of the stipends or making them contingent on the school budget balance at the end of the school year. Committee member Jon Green said he agreed with the stipends in principle but, like Ruark, wanted to wait.

Committee Chair SusanMary Redinger opposed delaying the decision on stipends, pointing out that March and April are the times when school personnel apply for jobs elsewhere. Redinger said she feared Harvard could lose one or more valued administrators.

In the absence of a consensus after more discussion, Redinger asked for a motion to either vote on the budget cuts alone or table the discussion until their next meeting. No one proposed a motion. Eventually Redinger suggested that both the budget cuts and the stipends be tabled for two weeks.

“Realistically, what’s going to be different two weeks from now?” Ruark asked.

“Unless we ask for options,” Molloy responded, “nothing is going to be different.”

Dwight offered to bring the board information on savings in the facilities budget and a comparison of administrative and teaching pay. The discussion drifted off into consideration of which budget cuts might be restored if funds were available and how changes in busing charges might affect the budget. After a few more minutes, the meeting adjourned.

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