End of year savings plus federal funds means extra dough for schools

  • Rundlett Middle School, looking down a hallway of sixth-grade classrooms on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • One half of the Concord High School gym had to be shut down due to water damage to the floor but the varsity basketball team still practiced on the other side of the gym on Wednesday, January 3, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor Staff
Published: 6/26/2020 2:06:52 PM
Modified: 6/26/2020 2:06:41 PM

Since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down New Hampshire schools unexpectedly in March, many districts are seeing more savings than usual in their end-of-year reserve funds. But at the same time, districts are pressed to make sure they can afford new pandemic-related expenses that allow schools to safely open in the fall. 

On Thursday, both the Concord School Board and the Hopkinton School Board held special budget meetings to discuss finances.

In Concord, business administrator Jack Dunn told school board members the district could have as much as $4 million in end-of-year reserve funds, which can be carried forward into the next fiscal year. 

When Concord switched to remote learning, the district saved money on books and supplies that were never purchased, as well as transportation that never occurred when field trips were canceled and buses stopped running.

“Just to give you an idea on gas, we spend between $12,000 and $14,000 a month,” Dunn said. “The bills have been running about $800 a month.”

The district also saved money on employee wages for non-additional hours and for hires that never happened. The district did not use many substitute teachers during the remote learning period, Dunn said.

At Thursday’s meeting, the board was able to transfer $2.1 million of that extra money into the budget for 2021, and added the rest to trust funds for things like maintenance, instructional materials and special education.

“We are going to need all the flexibility and ability to be nimble that we could possibly muster to face what will likely be diminished revenues and increased costs in the coming years due to COVID,” School board president Jennifer Patterson said.

Districts are also receiving more federal funding through the CARES Act, which could help with virus-related spending at the end of the summer.

For example, if Concord reopens for in-person classes in the fall, which is the current plan, the district will have to purchase personal protective equipment like masks and cleaning supplies. It will have to invest in compensatory education to catch students up on learning that was lost in the spring. It will have to increase social and emotional support following the pandemic, and Dunn said there may be an increased need for substitute staffers, particularly if employees have children in other school districts that are using a different model of learning.

“If there isn’t a blanket [model] of how this thing is going to open, it is going to be very weird,” Dunn told school board members Thursday.  

The amount of money needed for food service has the potential to increase, especially if students are not able to eat in the cafeterias and the district has to prep food and package it. Dunn said the district has just bought an $8,000 food packaging machine for Concord High School in addition to the one that already exists at Rundlett Middle School, in case food delivery becomes the new norm.

“Things may need to be deliverable rather than coming up with a tray and getting it,” he said.

Concord is receiving $953,636.64 through the CARES Act to support these kinds of COVID-related expenses in schools, but it will be spread between the public school system and private schools.

The Concord School Board will discuss re-opening in more detail on July 6.

In Hopkinton, business administrator Michelle Clark reported the district has an end-of-year fund balance of $747,609.79, which is about $100,000 more than was expected.

When the school shut down in March, Hopkinton saved money in areas like funds for athletic referees, workshops that never took place, and transportation that wasn’t needed. 

From that end-of-year reserve fund, $40,000 will go directly toward COVID-19 expenses for fall. Hopkinton is also getting a $46,000 federal grant from the CARES Act. 

Then Hopkinton School Board voted to allocate $120,000 to replace a hot water tank that broke at Hopkinton Middle High School and to purchase technology, including Chromebook laptops for staff, replacement of the lab at Maple Street School, and interactive whiteboards. 

Of the rest, $390,000 will go back to Hopkinton taxpayers to reduce taxes and $200,000 will go to into a tax rate stabilization fund to reduce taxes in the future.

Hopkinton school officials have been scrambling this month to figure out how to operate on a flat budget after two previous budget proposals were rejected by voters in May, leaving the district with the challenge of cutting $500,000 to operate at last year’s funding level.

The Hopkinton moderator has made Aug. 15 the voting day for the next school budget proposal, which means Hopkinton School Board has another chance to propose a budget more to the liking of taxpayers. 

If voters reject the budget again in August, the district will have to revert to the flat budget, which would involve cuts, including cuts to athletics and eliminating a math support specialist and an alcohol prevention program.

“I really hope that this budget journey ends on August 15,” Superintendent Steve Chamberlin said. “I have great belief and appreciation in the town of Hopkinton, that they will come together.”

In comments at the beginning of the meeting, Hopkinton School Board Chair Jim O’Brien addressed the “battle” going on in the town as residents debate the school budget on social media.

“It feels like it’s not about the budget but it’s about one-upmanship,” O’Brien said. “I’m trying to figure out how this tone has grown in the community. Some of it is historical, some of it is the pandemic and the anxiety that people feel. I just hope that as a community that we try to set the right tone for the conversations that we are having.”

Earlier on Thursday, a group of concerned citizens launched the Hopkinton Together Coalition in response to the proposed budget cuts, to advocate for a “high quality public school system that meets the needs of all students.”

“After seeing the potential cuts and knowing the effects it will have on not just my own child, but all of our students, I’m getting involved to support Hopkinton Schools so that we don’t irreparably damage the heart of our community,” Hopkinton parent Jen Bewersdorf said.

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