‘Everything’s on the table’: School board to revisit layoffs, demise of freshman sports

Some of the school employees laid off after last week’s failed override could possibly get their jobs back, according to School Committee Chair Sarah Fox.

The committee, with two newly elected members, voted unanimously to take another look at staffing and program cuts approved at Town Meeting, based on news that the school district has approximately $500,000 in surplus funds as the 2023 fiscal year ends June 30.

The School Committee (from left) Brian Ota, Alison Taylor, Jenn Schaeffner, Sarah Fox and Superintendent John Buckey talk about the budget June 29. CURRENT PHOTO / LEIGH BLANDER

That money comes, in part, from salaries for staff members who retired or resigned unexpectedly.

“Everything’s on the table,” Fox answered when asked about restoring positions that had been cut, after a School Committee meeting June 29.

Fox asked Assistant Superintendent of Finance Michelle Cresta to use some of the leftover cash from FY 23 to prepay FY 24’s out-of-district special education costs, thereby making money available to restore some of the cuts.

“That frees up money in next year’s budget that we could then charge our administrators with coming back to us very quickly about what could be prioritized to come back to our budget,” Fox said.

New member Jenn Schaeffner made a motion for the School Committee to revisit the budget cuts. She said she wants to look for more “non-student-facing line items.”

“We owe it to ourselves and to our students that we at least look at what our options are,” Schaeffner said.

Fox added, “We’re trying to lessen the impacts on students. I, for one, am done with students paying the price of adults.”

Asked when they learned about the surplus school funds, Fox and Schaeffner answered, “Tonight.”

However, Cresta and Buckey said they’ve been talking to Fox about the surplus and prepaying tuitions for about a month. And, they add, the surplus should not be a surprise because there has been a surplus every year for the last four years.

Cresta strongly advised against revisiting the FY 24 budget or using any of the surplus. For one thing, she said, if staff is rehired, there won’t be any funding to keep them in FY 25.

She added, “My concern is going into next year, if we use some of that surplus in a roundabout way to offset recurring costs next year, you’re going into next year with an unbalanced budget. We’ll be reducing our special ed tuition budget, which will roll forward the following year.”

Buckey sided with Cresta, saying, “I think Michelle’s approach is prudent.”

He also worried about the message being sent to the community.

“I think we feed a narrative in the community that, ‘Oh, it was scare tactics all along. They’ll find the money, they have hidden accounts in the school department,’ and for us to come back and undermine the superintendent, undermine the leadership team asking them to go back and look [at the FY24 budget] as if they had not, is a mistake,” Buckey said.

Play ball?

Schaeffner also made a motion to reinstate freshman sports as of Thursday night, without identifying where the funds to do so would come from.

“I’m going to dig in here on freshman sports,” she said. “It’s an urgent situation, and I feel very strongly about it. I’m confident that we’re going to be able to find the funds.”

Her motion lost on a 2-2 tie vote. (School Committee member Meagan Taylor was not at the meeting.) The topic is expected to be discussed again at the committee’s next meeting, most likely July 6.

Meanwhile, former Marblehead Select Board member and business owner T. Michael Rockett told the Current Thursday night that he would fund the $16,000 for freshman sports.

“I think it’s the most important thing for kids,” Rockett said. “I’m willing to pay whatever it is.”

Rockett called freshman sports a “political football.”

“I think they picked this because it’s easy,” he said. “They thought when they picked something like this, they would get the override.”

He continued, “I was a kid that grew up in special ed. Thank God we had sports. I’m not saying it’s more important [than academic programs]. All I’m saying is I’m going to fund this.”

The School Committee also asked Cresta to find out how much the district would have to raise student user fees to support freshman sports.

Buckey said the actual cost for freshman sports is closer to $40,000 when you add in money for transportation and officials.

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