Greenfield mayor’s proposed $61.6M budget curtails school funding

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 04-04-2023 8:08 PM

GREENFIELD — Mayor Roxann Wedegartner submitted a $61.6 million budget proposal for fiscal year 2024 on Monday, representing a 6.5% increase over the current budget of $57.9 million.

“This is another tough budget year,” Wedegartner said in a statement. “The decline in school enrollment and rising costs for goods and services along with rising costs in health insurance for our employees and retirees are contributing factors in this budget. Nevertheless, I submit this spending plan with some sense of optimism.”

The proposed operating budget, which will next be reviewed by City Council’s Ways and Means subcommittee followed by the full council, includes a $1.5 million cut to the School Committee’s proposed budget, reducing the department’s requested increase over the current fiscal year’s numbers from 10.35% to 3%.

“I feel very badly,” Wedegartner said in a Monday evening phone interview. “We certainly never would have been able to honor the 10.35% increase as their budget reflected. [The School Committee is requesting from] the city what they believe they need. … That 3% increase is what we could afford.”

She explained that enrollment in Greenfield’s public schools declined by 158 students this year, resulting in less education aid from the state and more of a burden on the local tax base. While Chapter 70 funding is roughly $500,000, the assessments for charter schools and School Choice are nearly $300,000, leaving slightly less than $200,000 in extra revenue to be dedicated to the Greenfield School Department.

Wedegartner acknowledged that this could mean layoffs and the inability to fund new positions. It could also mean cuts to programming.

“It’s not a pretty picture, unfortunately,” she said.

Wedegartner noted her requested FY24 budget represents an overall reduction of $2.7 million compared to department requests.

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With respect to some of the city’s largest departments, the mayor’s budget proposes an 11.05% increase to the Fire Department’s operating budget, an 11.65% increase to the Police Department’s operating budget and a 6.23% increase to the Public Works Department’s operating budget.

Wedegartner said for both police and fire, the increase primarily reflects contractual increases.

In the case of the Police Department, in particular, the increase also factors in new hires under the $375,000 Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant, which is reimbursable up to 75%.

“It is a reimbursement grant,” Wedegartner said. “In order for that to happen, we’d have to factor in an estimated amount of money for those three officers.”

Meanwhile, the total $22.9 million operating budget for education, which includes allocations for Franklin County Technical School and Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, represents a 3.57% increase over the current fiscal year. With respect to Greenfield schools in particular, Wedegartner’s proposed cuts reduce Superintendent Christine DeBarge’s proposed $21.25 million budget — which School Committee members voted last month to accept — by 6.7%. Wedegartner, who is also a member of the School Committee, abstained.

DeBarge explained to committee members last month that the vast majority of the increase was reflective of salaries and a 14% increase in tuition for special education.

“That’s almost $400,000 in the budget,” DeBarge said of the tuition increase. “There is some conversation about relief being found in the governor’s proposed budget, but there are still some proposed conditions and parameters around the access.”

A few changes in the school budget compared to fiscal year 2023 include the elimination of positions that were unfilled, including the assistant special education director position, a float nurse position and a float custodian position, according to DeBarge. The fiscal year 2024 budget also shows reduced funding for technology and textbooks.

“Our budget is a reflection of what we value as a community,” Precinct 1 Councilor Katherine Golub said in response to the mayor’s proposed budget. “I believe that Greenfield’s No. 1 funding priority should be our schools. If the Greenfield City Council passes the mayor’s budget as is, it will mean layoffs, unfilled positions and cuts to essential programs for our kids. This has been the story year after year in Greenfield.”

According to Wedegartner, education appropriations account for 37% of the proposed budget; general government appropriations account for nearly 31%; and city and School Department employee benefits, debt service, and property and liability insurance account for 32%.

Golub said City Council’s Ways and Means subcommittee will discuss the School Department budget on April 24 at 6 p.m. The full council is expected to discuss the budget at its next two meetings on April 19 and May 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the John Zon Community Center, with a final vote on the budget expected in May.

A copy of the mayor’s complete budget proposal is available online at greenfield-ma.gov/budget.

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.

A previous version of this article incorrectly described the outcome of last month’s School Committee vote. Mayor Roxann Wedegartner, who also serves on the School Committee, abstained. All other present members voted to accept the budget.

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