Budget constraints to impact Mahar programs

  • Ralph C. Mahar Regional School in Orange. Staff FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 6/10/2020 6:36:55 PM
Modified: 6/10/2020 6:36:45 PM

ORANGE — Emotions are running high in the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School District as students, teachers and community members are lobbying for the programs and departments they care about with a tight budget on the horizon.

The Mahar School Committee held a virtual meeting Tuesday morning via Zoom, and the videoconferencing platform’s tally indicated at one point more than 100 people were tuned in. Committee members voted to propose a $14,047,493 budget, down by about 3 percent from $14,475,493 this year. The school district is composed of Orange, New Salem, Wendell and Petersham.

Michele A. Tontodonato, the school district’s director of finance and operations, said Orange’s assessment is $4,786,345 for fiscal year 2021 — a $336,092 increase from the current fiscal year. She said Orange has 483 children eligible to attend Mahar, making up 78 percent of the school’s student population.

Tontodonato said New Salem’s assessment is $691,635 (up from $647,971), Wendell’s is $423,388 (up from $375,418) and Petersham’s is $812,895 (down from $908,306). Tontodonato said these figures are determined by student enrollment and state aid.

Fiscal year 2021 revenue, she said, is down about $800,000. Tontodonato said the state government has dispensed less financial support in the form of special education funding, and transportation and charter school reimbursement.

Anticipation of budget cuts has people advocating for different programs, as which programs will be impacted hasn’t been determined yet.

Guidance counselor Caitlin McKenna chimed in during Tuesday’s meeting to say cutting fourth-year language classes will mean students applying to elite colleges and universities may not have the qualifications necessary to stand out. She added that cutting sports means fewer kids will have athletics to help steer them away from early drug use or other poor decision-making.

Art teacher Helen Miller took the reins of a letter-writing campaign, and has received 53 from students, alumni, parents and community parents expressing what Mahar means to them. She read a few of the letters aloud during the virtual meeting.

“It’s clear that cuts are going to have to be made, but we as a community have to remember how crucial each and every teacher is to Mahar, and by extension how crucial Mahar is to our community,” Thor Mead, who just graduated this month, wrote in his letter. “Every teacher that we lose also means the loss of a coach, someone who supports our students, or someone who’s working behind the scenes to make the school a better place. The best way that we, as a community, can serve our youth is to do everything that we can to ensure that as many teachers as possible remain employed.”

“It’s hard to read all those letters without tearing up,” School Committee Chair Peter Cross said during the virtual meeting. “I have experienced that.”

Though it is currently unclear which specific programs the cuts will impact, Orange voters will be asked to approve the school budget as part of Annual Town Meeting, slated for 6 p.m. on June 15 on Mahar’s football field. There will be approximately 200 chairs set up 6 feet apart from one another and voters will be required to wear masks. The rain date is June 16 at 6 p.m.

In the case of the other school district towns, Petersham’s Annual Town Meeting is set for 7 p.m. on June 29. As of noon on Wednesday, New Salem and Wendell had not finalized their dates.

Reach Domenic Poli at 413-772-0261, ext. 262 or dpoli@recorder.com.

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