Southampton to float override to boost school budget

  • The William E. Norris School in Southampton GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/14/2021 1:52:57 PM

SOUTHAMPTON — Several key positions at Norris Elementary School are at stake next fiscal year unless voters OK a $714,500 override next month, school officials say.

Next year’s budget without the override would require the School Committee to cut several positions, including a math interventionist, a reading interventionist, a special subject teacher and a paraprofessional, in addition to reducing a school nurse role to a half-time position and other cuts.

Principal Aliza Pluta said that the cut to Norris’ budget would be “devastating,” stating that it “takes away everything I said I needed to support students at Norris School.”

At Town Meeting on June 12, residents are expected to approve one of two budget proposals — one with the override included and another without. If the budget with the override passes — and is subsequently approved at a Town Election on June 22 — the town’s proposed budget would be about $19 million, which is 7% higher than the current fiscal year’s budget. Without the override, next year’s budget comes out to $18.34 million and would require cuts across schools and other departments.

In the event that voters reject the override at Town Meeting, the Select Board asked the Southampton School Committee this week to prepare for a $4.8 million budget, down from the $5.4 million the committee requested. This proposed budget drew sharp criticism from the committee at its Wednesday night meeting.

School Committee member Greg Bennett said that, while all departments are suffering from the impacts of the pandemic, the committee needs to keep the best interests of students in mind.

“We’re charged with the children,” Bennett said, “not the rest of the town. That’s the Select Board’s responsibility.”

Several members noted that the cuts would be particularly harmful to students in special education programs and expressed concerns that, as a result, students from Southampton would be at a disadvantage when they join their peers from other towns at Hampshire Regional High School.

The math interventionist position is currently not staffed due to COVID-19 impacts, while a music teacher position is being filled on a temporary basis and would likely be the special subject position eliminated to avoid a layoff.

Although the school has received Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding via the CARES Act, Pluta said that overreliance on this financing would only be “kicking the can down the road for another year” once emergency funding runs out.

Select Board member Matt Roland said that he agrees with School Committee members that “those cuts are going to be meaningful to student education,” describing school services as “drastically reduced” under the balanced budget scenario.

“That’s why I, personally, am a huge supporter of passing the override budget,” Roland noted.

But if the override does not pass, he said every department will “bear the consequences of having to work within our balanced budget scenario,” Roland said.

Some of the shortfalls that the school is experiencing stem from a lack of state funding on legally mandated expenses such as paying for vocational school tuition and transportation to charter schools, according to Roland.

“We’re forced to pay them by law, but the state is not kicking in their committed share,” he said.

Stretched thin

The committee’s request for extra funding arises largely from contractual increases for school employees, according to Town Administrator Ed Gibson, as well as expenses related to out-of-district placements for students in special education programs, transportation increases, and increases in tuition at vocational schools.

Not all are in favor of the override. Nilda Cohen, a Southampton resident who is running for a Select Board seat, was critical of how Gibson and the Select Board created the budget, voicing concerns over the proposed override in particular.

“We have not been planning for that rainy day,” Cohen said. “We don’t have money in stabilization that can carry us through.”

Cohen said that while schools play an important role in the community, they should be prepared to tighten their budget.

Due to the emergency nature of the pandemic, Cohen said, “I think we’re all going to have to bite the bullet and say, ‘We may not have everything we had before. How can we come together and make it happen?’”

But Roland said the budget is “as lean as it gets” to maintain adequate services in town.

“We’re trying to provide the best services at the lowest possible cost,” Roland said, “and I think we’re doing that in our override budget.”

Cohen is also concerned that the budget was put together without a permanent accountant in place. The town has not had someone in that role since November and is looking to fill the position “as soon as possible,” according to Gibson. The position is currently filled on a temporary basis.

While Norris School’s proposed increase makes up a substantial portion of the override, the proposal “will affect about all departments,” according to Gibson, and is a result of “a very difficult year, to say the least, with some fixed and unexpected cost increases.”

The override would also help pay for wage increases at the library, and for expanding staffing and hours that were reduced during the pandemic, Gibson said. Other override funds would provide for materials, maintenance and utilities; and prevent reductions in positions in police, fire and EMS departments.

The override will increase taxes for residents, though Gibson said that an estimate for how steep this increase will be has not yet been determined. The type of override the budget calls for, known as a Proposition 2½ override, allows communities to levy property taxes above the state’s typical ceiling of a 2.5% annual increase. Gibson expects the town will arrive at an estimate early next week.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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