READING – At the most recent meeting of the School Committee Director of Finance Susan Bottan presented the final financial wrap up for the school budget from the past school year. She announced $831,231 remained unspent and was returned to the town (to go into free cash for use through the Finance Committee and Town meeting).
Areas of savings and shortfalls in the $48,332,663 budget were driven by the impact of COVID-19. Savings in personnel accounts resulted from a decrease in the use of classroom substitutes for both general and special education, a decline in the number of coaching stipends, unanticipated retirements and unfilled staffing positions.
Savings in non-personnel accounts were a result of the reduction in use of school buses and re-negotiated contract terms for athletics, general and special education transportation, as well as a decrease in enrollment of students attending out-of-district special education placements. Shortfalls occurred in the areas of lost program and service revenue and reduced offsets for Athletics, Extracurricular, Extended Day and Use of School Property.
Nearly half of the unspent funds were in the special education budget ($401,162). School facilities which had obtained a transfer of $388,075, returned the next largest amount, $173,498. In addition $1,716,500 had been transferred out of special education to other areas of the budget and $100,000 was transferred out of athletics to cover school budget shortfalls in other line items.
With the net savings that remained in June, the district purchased mathematics and world language curriculum materials, student computers, classroom interactive white boards, art and custodial equipment, furniture and supplies, and athletic uniforms. In addition, a portion of savings generated in FY 21 allowed the district to increase the amount of special education out-of-district tuition prepayments for FY 22.
The budget news did not sit well with School Committee member Erin Gaffen, who wanted to know if there was a way they could keep the money and spend it. School Committee member Sarah McLaughlin offered her opinion for the current budget that the schools should spend the remaining money and not return large sums to the town.
Committee chair Tom Wise informed them the schools already had purchased a lot at the end of the year and they try to be good stewards of the funding provided by the town which brings good will for future budget requests. Committee member Shawn Brandt agreed saying the schools usually return roughly 1 percent of their budget back to the town (this year it is 1.7 percent).
In other business at the Sept. 30 meeting, a 4-1 (Brandt opposed) vote tabled a decision to create a “Reading in Reading program as a sub-committee of the School Committee. The proposal advanced by Wise and McLaughlin stemmed from a reading initiative from SEPAC which they felt should be extended to all students in the Reading public schools.
All committee members supported the goals of increasing literacy and reading skills in the schools, but Gaffen and Brandt opposed the structuring of the initiative under the school committee and felt it should be headed by the school administration and staff.
School Committee member Chuck Robinson, who was unable to attend the meeting, forwarded a statement that he also opposed the plan to form the sub-committee.
Brandt felt having the sub-committee with school committee members on it was against the policy of the School Committee and outside their purview. He also said they should not vote on this without a full board present. Gaffen agreed with Brandt, and School Commitee member Carla Nazzaro was on the fence and suggested a one year trial for the sub-committee.
Superintendent of Schools Tom Milaschewski said the Reading in Reading program deeply matters and is needed. He also told members the intent of the program is “spot on” and added the district would move forward with the program no matter how it is configured.
In the end the committee decided to table the issue and resume discussion at their meeting on Oct. 14.