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School budget jump expected to be covered by state

GREENFIELD — Banking on an increase in state aid, the Greenfield School Committee has signed off on a $17.1 million draft budget to be sent to the mayor’s office — while also directing Superintendent Susan Hollins to prepare alternate budgets in case there is less revenue.

The draft budget — approved 5-0 with Mayor William Martin abstaining and Doris Doyle absent — is an 8.5 percent increase from last year, an amount that school officials are counting on to be covered by state aid and one they say is necessary to support a growing school district.

The draft budget, which will go to the mayor’s office and will then be presented to the Town Council, does not ask for any increases from local taxpayers.

The school district based its budget around a $1.34 million increase in Chapter 70 aid — the major program of state aid for towns to help pay for public elementary and secondary schools. That’s about 75 percent of what Greenfield is in line to receive from Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget proposal.

But because there is uncertainty, even skepticism, that Patrick’s increases will make it through the Legislature, Chairman John Lunt stressed the need Thursday to come up with alternatives. The committee will ask Hollins to treat this budget as a “best case scenario” and prepare “middle case” and “worst-case” budgets, in the event the committee needs them.

That motion, put forward by Maryelen Calderwood, passed unanimously, 6-0.

With Hollins unable to attend Thursday’s meeting, the school district’s director of financial services, Elizabeth Gilman, fielded questions from the committee for nearly two hours. Hollins and Gilman met with five of the committee members on Tuesday for a budget work session.

The biggest financial need, according to Hollins and Gilman, is filling in a $400,000 gap caused by decreased special education funding.

The state’s “circuit breaker” special education funding has been slashed statewide by $500 million in the last five years. Districts count on that money to cover the high costs of supporting disabled students — which sometimes exceeds $100,000 for each child — that have had to go outside the district for their education.

The school district’s budget calls for an increase of $484,000 (3.1 percent) in money for special education — an effort by local officials to make up for the loss without having to cut into other parts of its budget.

The mayor said Tuesday that the school district, like other departments, may have to figure out how to do more with less.

But school administrators have repeatedly argued that the budget reflects the needs presented by a growing school district. The schools’ lower grades have between 140 and 160 students, compared to high school grades that are under 100.

Among the new things in this year’s budget: four additional full-time and five part-time positions — including them, a new librarian, personnel office worker, custodian and school officer.

On Thursday, Martin proposed that the committee “lock in” $55,000 in the budget dedicated toward a school officer for the high school — a motion that would have not allowed school officials the flexibility to use that money for something else.

But other members expressed concern about prioritizing and voting on a single line item. Martin’s motion failed 2-1, with Marcia Day and Daryl Essensa voting against it. Calderwood, Lunt and Francia Wisnewski abstained.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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