Schools face budget hurdles with end of federal funding

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During the height of the COVID pandemic, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund was enacted to support education, but with this phasing out, districts are left to handle some potentially challenging budgets. 

Such is the case with North Attleborough, as the School Committee reviewed a proposed $48.9 million fiscal year 2025 budget at its meeting on Wednesday, April 3. The district has received more than $5 million in federal funding through the ESSER program, which was signed into law in 2021. The money can be used to help schools safely reopen and measure and address learning loss. 

Superintendent John Antonucci said the budget marks a 4.5% increase over last year’s. 

“ESSER was intended to address the needs of our students who suffered greatly during the pandemic,” said Antonucci. “It provided what should have been extra support, but we also used it for more basic needs. It’s widely known that we’re not a well-funded district.”

Among the things North Attleborough used the ESSER funds for were curriculum, technology, and operational or maintenance needs. 

“Where we’re at today, the challenge of adequately funding North Attleborough schools has shifted back to us,” said Antonucci. “We had this wonderful gift of ESSER, but in a post-ESSER environment, it’s back to us to figure out how we’re going to pay for our basic services. That was a really big issue for us going into this budget.”

With the end of the ESSER funding, the drivers of the school budget have gone “mostly beyond our control,” said Antonucci. These include special education tuition, utilities, and repairs to thee schools.

“We really felt it this year,” he said.

At the April 3 budget hearing, Antonucci said the schools have struggled with balancing its budgets. Over the last two fiscal years, the budget has been “level service” meaning that no new programs or staff are added and officials seek to maintain the same services as the precious year. However, those two budgets saw cuts—$380,000 two years ago and $180,000 last year. 

“We didn’t even get a level service budget the last two years,” said Antonucci.

Thee has been some positive news, as the schools have taken in new students in surrounding towns through the School Choice program. This has resulted in a new source of revenue which Antonucci said has been used to offset budget loss. 

Antonucci added that the district has a number of positions that need to be filled, including instructional coaches, intervention specialists, and an assistant principal at the Amvet Elementary School. 

North Attleborough has the one of the lowest per pupil expenditures in Massachusetts, said Antonucci, which is how much is spent on each student, the only way to compare school spending among communities. Out of the 16 districts which North Attleborough is comparable to, the town is 14th in per pupil spending. 

“We’re last in spending on operations,” he said. 

Members of the School Committee had much to say on the budget. Sarah Stone described the intervention specialists as “critical,” and wanted to see them restored, and that the Amvet School, which has 420 students, is in need of an assistant principal.

“To lose them (the specialists) as we are losing ESSER funding is so unfortunate,” she said.

Recently elected committee member Keith Lapointe suggested that a ranked order for the open positions be created, which others agreed was a good approach. Ethan Hamilton said that if the town cannot get more people into the classrooms, it will cost them. 

“It’s going to be a cascading thing if we can’t even meet the basic needs,” said Hamilton.  

Antonucci said he could come back to the committee with the ranked list.

“Just because a need goes unfunded, doesn’t mean it goes away,” he said.