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Town Council approves school budget 5-2

On Monday, June 9, 2020 at a Town Council special meeting, the council voted to approve the School Board FY21 budget, thereby forwarding it to a citizen referendum on July 14. Town Manager Matthew Sturgis noted that at the onset of the meeting there were 25 attendees following the Zoom videoconference.

The town councilors acknowledged the receipt of numerous emails from citizens both in support and in opposition of the proposed School Board budget. Councilors Penny Jordan and Valerie Deveraux voted "No." Jordan shared that she feels strongly that schools and towns should not be held responsible for expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that a joint effort with surrounding towns should be pursued in order to demand that the state and federal government provide funding.

The School Department has been planning three possible scenarios for school to start again in the fall, depending on direction from the state. These include a continuation of remote learning, having all students return to classrooms, and a combination of both. Any of these will be costly, with schools having to provide for social distancing, increased sanitation and personal protective equipment for on-site instruction, and increased support for remote learning. [Superintendent's Memo]

Sturgis and Superintendent Donna Wolfrom both stated that they are communicating weekly with their respective peer organizations to communicate their needs to the state leaders. From these discussions, Sturgis has learned that the expectation is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse 75 percent of COVID-19 related expenses; states and towns will split the remaining 25 percent with states reimbursing 15 percent and towns responsible for 10 percent. Wolfrom stated that school department recently applied for and has been approved for consideration of future federal and state relief funds. From the beginning, both the town and school department have been tracking COVID-19 related expenses and will be poised to apply for any and all available reimbursement programs.

Deveraux stated frustration that the School Board had not made cuts in the budget which reflect the current financial environment related to COVID-19. Sturgis pointed out that due to state requirements for validation voting, there was no more time available for the Town Council to request further revisions to the school budget.

Councilor Chris Straw, prior to voting "Yes," stated that the school budget process this year had been the best one he had seen in years because it provided the relevant data on student to teacher ratios, which best illustrate whether a budget is supported by a quantifiable need. Straw also shared his distress that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, students in grades K-4 are especially vulnerable to the change in instruction being forced upon schools and worries that many more students will fall behind in their education and require extra services as a result. In response, Wolfrom said that while the school department does not know what to expect in the fall, it must be ready to implement one of three options without an increased budget. Additional costs will have to be absorbed with the FY21 budget. Wanting to be sensitive to taxpayers, Wolfrom said that the School Board chose not to raise the budget in light of COVID-19 current and future expenses. Instead, the administration is forced to await guidance from the state on how to provide education in the fall, while continuously juggling various scenarios that will best meet student needs within a set budget.

Councilor Jamie Garvin, who voted "Yes," shared frustration over being in the position of having to vote on a budget that does not clearly define how the funds will be used. Wolfrom provided the councilors with an updated cost structure that attempts to show how funds would be used in each of the three potential models. [memo] Not knowing what the state will require of schools, however, means that there are unknowns at this point. In the event of excess funds, Wolfrom pointed out that schools are only allowed to spend what the voters have approved. Any potential additional funds which exceed the adopted school budget would most likely go to taxpayers — as has been the case in the past.

Council Chair Valerie Adams shared that the 0.9 percent increase in taxes was indicative of a collaborative and thorough process by both the town and school and that she would vote in support of the school budget. Based on the current School Board budget, community members would see an increase of $18 per each $100,000 of home valuation. Councilors Caitlin Jordan and Jeremy Gabrielson also voted in favor of the school budget.