Budget Cuts Were Avoided, But It’s Still a ‘Weird’ Year for School Department

Count it a weird budget year for the Everett Public Schools when several School Committee members truly considered de-funding the football program, in an historically football-crazy city, to ensure that the after-school program would be funded next spring – if school was even open for in-person learning by then.

It was only a discussion during the School Budget hearings this past Thursday and Monday nights, but it certainly signified the radical shift in priorities in the schools due to traditional reorganization and non-traditional COVID-19 realities.

“At some point we’ll go back and we will need an after-school program there,” said Member Millie Cardillo. “It would make me feel more comfortable seeing it there…Even if we had to take it out of sports – and I’ll probably get my house egged for saying this – because we’re not going to have sports as we’ve known them in the past.”

Said Chair Tom Abruzzese, “February football, I’m not so sure how well that’s going to work out, but that’s my take on it. I would suggest there’s a very strong probability there isn’t going to be football this entire season…There may be a time down the road we look at utilizing that (football) money for a potential after-school program.”

In the end, the $100,000 from football and sports was found elsewhere, in the budget for Special Education Transportation, which will not be used in the first few months of school. Still, even the suggestion signifies that if that discussion can happen in Everett, anything can happen in 2020.

After a very spirited presentation on Monday night at the School Committee meeting, and a three-hour discussion last Thursday line-by-line in the School Budget, the Committee voted 7-0 to pass a document that is better than expected. In May and June, drastic cuts were expected and made all across the school system, with the potential of having further cuts this month. However, guarantees of level-funding in early August from state government leaders allowed the schools to continue last year’s program with a slight increase.

“We expected significant cuts, but we did not have to do that,” said Supt. Priya Tahiliani. “We even expected a second round of significant cuts, but we didn’t have to do that either.”

Said Asst. Supt. for Business and Finance Charlie Obremski, “Overall, I think we’re in good shape on the budget. I believe a lot of districts are in a lot of trouble overall. I think we’ve done a good job of managing the budget.”

The official budget was $84.099 million with an added $4.2 million for Special Education Transportation. That total was up by just over $400,000 from last year. It should come in context though – and as was pointed out by Obremski – that the schools expected to have an increase of more than $7 million this year due to the first year of the Student Opportunity Act, which is now on hold due to COVID-19.

Despite the level funding this year, there is very little that resembles last year’s budget and school structural arrangement under new Supt. Priya Tahiliani – who has combined restructuring changes she had eyed before COVID-19 with necessary changes to accommodate COVID-19 remote and hybrid-learning plans.

In the end, much of the budget priorities lie in funding more teachers to handle remote online learning, and funding more support staff to supervise the E-Learning Centers proposed for some families in the school system.

Tahiliani said they are focusing in the budget on the here and now, and not worrying so much about things like the after-school program for later in the year. Even though it’s important – it is not part of the crisis they are addressing now in trying to start remote and transition to a hybrid model.

“We have this situation to cover between 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. until mid-November and we have made judgement calls,” she said. “We have to staff these centers for families who have to go to and to support our most vulnerable populations. It’s a promise we made to the community and what we’re doing now is making contingency plans, which is what you see in front of you with this budget. It’s how we are going to staff these E-Learning Centers…We are really trying now to plan for the worst-case scenario, which is what we think we might be up against in two or three weeks.”

The proof is in the pudding, as there is an increase of $3.37 million in funding teachers – with a total of $42.8 million spent on that. Administration pay is down, and deans at the high school have now been moved into a lower tier bargaining unit as Department Heads – saving lots of money as well. Any savings will be re-purposed for staffing the E-Learning Centers.

Tahiliani and the School Committee members all agreed that the budget needed to be a working document, and Members like Frank Parker asked that there be bi-weekly or monthly updates.

“This is a working document and could change and moving forward we should treat it as such on a monthly basis or bi-weekly basis,” said Parker. “If we could look at this frequently, that would be wise, on a quarterly basis at a minimum.”

That was agreed to at the final vote on Monday night as well, and all members said they would expect to be addressing the School Budget at least once a month going forward this year.

Tahiliani agreed and committed to taking that approach as well.

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