School Committee chair ‘shocked’ by town budget announcement that could lead to more layoffs

The Marblehead School Committee and the district are dealing with a bombshell announcement late Wednesday that the town may not be able contribute the full $350,000 expected toward school energy costs in fiscal year 2024 because there may not be enough funds available. The town also notified the schools that it has to charge back approximately $60,000 in utility costs to the department for the current fiscal year, according to the district.

The new Select Board is sworn in Wednesday night. Shortly after, it adjourned without hearing from upset parents.

“I am shocked,” School Committee Chair Sarah Fox said about the $350,000 surprise. She spoke immediately after the Select Board adjourned its June 21 meeting after refusing to take public comment from about a dozen parents in the room.

“This is unchartered territory,” Fox added.

The town has an energy reserve fund that has been used to cover excess utility costs for the schools and other town departments. Typically, the schools can access $350,000 of that reserve fund once they spend an initial $892,000 budgeted for energy costs.

Late Wednesday, Finance Director Aleesha Nunley-Benjamin alerted Schools Assistant Superintendent for Finance Michelle Cresta that there are not enough funds to give the schools the full $350,000, according to the district. As of Wednesday night, it was unclear how much the schools would be given.

“At this time, it’s unknown what the impact will be,” Buckey told the Current after the meeting. “If we’re looking at several hundred thousands of dollars that need to be accounted for, it simply has to be personnel, or programs. But programs are personnel. Freshman sports, those are coaches. High school science, those are people. STEAM, that’s a teacher.”

Parents at the meeting expressed anger that this announcement came one day after the municipal election and a failed override vote. The $2.5 million override would have funded more than 30 school positions and several programs that now need to be cut.

“We’re going to fight like hell to make sure our kids what they need,” said Sarah Magazine, who worked on the “Vote Yes” campaign supporting the override. “So long as I’ve got kids in this district, I’ll fight. We want our teachers and staff to know that.”

Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer told the Current that the schools never should have had access to the town’s energy reserve fund, and that is part of the problem now. Still, he is not overly worried.

“Finance directors between the school and the town will work it out,” he said. “It’s the end of the year, so we’re all able to move funds. The bigger issue is the issue of the schools tapping into town funds as part of that reserve account. We’re going to work that out for the next budget.”

The Select Board and the School Committee both meet next week.

Fox made it clear that she doesn’t blame the new Select Board.

“We have the exact team we need to fix this,” she said. “I don’t believe there is anything nefarious.”

Fox said that, even before the energy reserve fund surprise, she was “up at 3 a.m. thinking of anything I can do to help soften the blow to the kids” from failure of the override.

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