Town will let schools access $350K in energy reserve funds, but only for one more year

In a heated meeting Thursday morning, Marblehead Finance Director Aleesha Nunley-Benjamin emphasized that the school district will have access to $350,000 in town energy reserve funds for fiscal year 2024, easing concerns about more layoffs in the district.

The Finance Committee discussed $350,000 in energy reserve funds typically used by the schools.

Nunley-Benjamin, who started in Marblehead this spring, told the Finance Committee that she was shocked to learn Wednesday that the school district has historically used $350,000 of the town’s energy reserve fund as part of its annual budget. The $350,000 amounts to 83% of the total energy reserve budget.

“That was news to me,” she said. “I had no idea that previous finance directors had said, ‘Take $350,000.’ The methodology doesn’t make any sense. That should be part of the schools’ budget.”

Nunley-Benjamin wants to change the process beginning in FY25 to have the schools have their own energy reserve fund.

During public comment, School Committee Chair Sarah Fox defended the schools’ use of the funds.

“What I just heard very clearly here was essentially the burning of the bridge that we’ve worked really hard to build between the schools and the town,” Fox said. “We’re told constantly that we are one town, it is one pot of money, it’s not ‘us versus them,’ we work together. What I just heard from Aleesha is troubling on so many levels.”

She added, “Go back and read the wording that created the reserve fund at Town Meeting. It’s been clear all along that it’s for all town departments.”

Fox said the schools were being unfairly targeted.

“The schools have taken more layoffs than any other department,” she said. “We’re the only ones that took layoffs.”

On Wednesday night, Fox and Superintendent John Buckey said that Nunley-Benjamin had informed Assistant Superintendent of Finance Michelle Cresta that the full $350,000 in reserve energy funds might not be available in FY24. Nunley-Benjamin refuted that Thursday, saying changes won’t happen until FY25.

After the Finance Committee meeting, Fox told the Current that she supports moving the $350,000 in energy reserves to the schools’ budget.

“Starting FY25, I will advocate for the funds to be allocated to the schools to manage,” she said.

At the June 22 meeting, the Finance Committee also approved $563,290 in end-of-year transfer requests from department to department to cover additional, over-budget costs.

Resident Jim Zisson spoke at the meeting, asking if some of the leftover funds in several departments — along with an additional $500,000 in free cash certified by the state this spring — could be used to fund 33 school positions and several programs that are set to be cut after Tuesday’s Proposition 2 1/2 override failed.

“Specifically, I want $15,000 for freshman sports …  and it’s not for freshman sports, it’s mental health,” Zisson said. “The other thing that’s irritating is the pink slips.”

Supporters of the override say they’re not giving up on finding ways to fund the schools.

“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.”

Fox added that she was “up at 3 a.m. thinking of anything I can do to help soften the blow to the kids.”

The reconstituted School Committee, which now includes newly elected members Jenn Schaeffner and Brian Ota, is scheduled to meet next on Thursday, June 29 at 7 p.m.

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Editor Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter.

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