Superintendent Argues Against Reconsidering Budget Cuts: Don’t “Feed the Narrative That It Was Scare Tactics All Along”
On Thursday, June 29, 2023, the newly constituted Marblehead School Committee met for the first time following the June 20 election, which saw the defeat of incumbent Sarah Gold and the election of two new members – former Glover School principal Brian Ota and former School Committee member Jenn Schaeffner. Both Ota and Schaeffner were in attendance, along with Sarah Fox and Alison Taylor. Meagan Taylor was not able to attend.
As always during the meeting immediately following an election, the first item of business involved deciding on new committee leadership. Fox retained her role as Chair, as did Alison Taylor as Secretary. Schaeffner was nominated and unanimously elected to serve as Vice Chair.
Much of the evening’s discussion revolved around financial issues in the wake of the defeat of the override vote that would have provided additional funding to the schools. Superintendent John Buckey had published a list of cuts that would go into effect were the override to fail, including a variety of teaching and paraprofessional positions as well as the freshman sports program. While 33 positions were included in the list of cuts, some were already vacant. Marblehead Beacon reached out to the superintendent last week to ask how many actual pink slips were required but had not yet received a response as of publication.
How Should Budget Surplus Be Handled?
Unexpectedly, the current fiscal year is concluding with a surplus of several hundred thousand dollars, which Fox attributes to a number of staff members choosing to leave mid year after learning that their positions were at risk if the override did not pass, as well as to vacant positions not being filled due to uncompetitive pay rates. “At Town Meeting, we had no notion of what our surplus would be,” Fox stated, and given the availability of these extra funds, “we owe it to our students to maximize the impact on student achievement.”
Michelle Cresta, Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations, pushed back, arguing that it would not be fiscally prudent to use what she said was a $500,000 surplus to offset recurring costs in next year’s budget. These funds can only be used to prepay specific expenses for next year, she said.
Buckey also argued against revisiting any of the cuts, noting that it would be inappropriate given that “we have been saying that if the override is unsuccessful we will be eliminating these programs,” and that any type of reconsideration would “undermine the superintendent,” and “feed a narrative that it was scare tactics all along.”
Fox responded vehemently, noting that state law “gives sole authority for the budget to the elected officials at this table.” While Massachusetts state guidelines assign operational responsibility to the superintendent, the School Committee retains full discretion over every aspect of the line-item budget. “We are sitting on a few extra hundred thousand dollars,” she said.
Ota also questioned the appropriateness of revisiting cuts already established by the administrative staff, but Schaeffner disagreed, stating “I’m going to push back and say, that’s our job.”
Freshman Sports to be Reinstated?
Arguing in particular for the need to find ways to retain student-facing positions, Schaeffner raised the possibility of funding the freshman sports program immediately, noting, “I feel strongly that freshman sports need to be reinstated,” because this cut “felt punitive frankly.” Alison Taylor agreed, saying “freshman sports is important for a group of students who have had to deal with so much loss.” Schaeffner added that the sports program in particular is time sensitive, with practices starting over the summer and families wanting to make plans.
A long discussion ensued, with Schaeffner noting that it should not be hard to find an extra $16,000 in the budget to cover the amount attributed to the freshman sports program, especially given the newly discovered surplus, and Buckey replying that the amount needed was actually closer to $40,000 given the need for transportation. Alison Taylor questioned this, wondering if it was possible for all of the student athletes to travel in a bus together, as that was the procedure when she was in school.
Greg Ceglarski, Marblehead High School’s Athletic Director, provided some background information, explaining that there are nine high school sports programs impacted by the decision to eliminate freshman sports, with approximately 130 student athletes participating. Freshman sports basically allow for a third team, which is available for students who don’t earn a spot on varsity or junior varsity. Families currently pay a user fee of $483 per student or $623 maximum per family for students to participate in sports programs.
Fox, noting that she has “a hard time putting anything non-academic over academics,” questioned whether it would be possible to increase the user fees to cover the costs for freshman sports rather than finding the necessary funds in the budget. Schaeffner replied that “freshman sports are really de minimis in this budget,” and “I am confident we will be able to find funds.” Fox countered that she would prefer to wait until more information is available.
The motion to reinstate freshman sports failed on a two-two vote, with Schaeffner and Alison Taylor voting in favor and Fox and Ota opposed. The topic will likely be revisited at the next School Committee meeting, tentatively scheduled for Thursday, July 6, 2023.
What’s Going On With ARPA Funds?
The funds allotted to Marblehead through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) also were the topic of significant conversation in light of ongoing budgetary needs in the schools. While the schools are responsible for close to 75 percent of the town budget, as noted by Alison Taylor, more than half of the school department’s requests for funding have been denied. “I have a lot of frustration over ARPA,” she said, and “I think the entire process needs to be immediately reviewed and updated.”
Marblehead has implemented a series of rules regarding the dissemination of ARPA funds – which total a little over $6 million – that go beyond the requirements laid out by the federal government. It is unclear at this time how much of Marblehead’s allotment has been distributed. The committee tasked with evaluating ARPA requests does not currently have a meeting on the calendar. “I am at a loss as to why there isn’t a sense of urgency,” stated Schaeffner.
In addressing the ARPA funds and other financial issues, Alison Taylor emphasized the need to work collaboratively with the Select Board, particularly given the pro-transparency message sent in the recent election and the fact that “it is a different board than it was two weeks ago.”
The School Committee is tentatively scheduled to meet again on July 6th and July 24th.
Editor’s note: Jenn Schaeffner is a Marblehead Beacon founder and editor. She took a leave of absence from Marblehead Beacon during her campaign for School Committee and is recusing herself from any issues surrounding School Committee coverage.