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Timeline: Balancing an unbalanced fiscal 2021 budget

Jan. 29, 2020:
he Finance Committee and School Committee meet to discuss the fiscal 2021 school budget, which is 4.23% higher than its fiscal 2020 budget. School Superintendent Linda Dwight says salaries make up almost 80% of the school budget, and contractual increases push them up yearly. “It’s a bit of an unsustainable long-term situation, unless we have significant retirements or unless we lay off staff,” she says.

Feb. 5
Finance Director Lori Bolasevich informs the Finance Committee of a fiscal 2021 budget deficit of $834,656, prompting the first discussions of an override. Driving the deficit are rising wages and a 7.27% cost increase in employee benefits.

Feb. 26
The Finance Committee takes a first pass at reducing the deficit by increasing revenue forecasts, eliminating some small warrant article requests, and making $341,844 in cuts to above-level service requests in some department budgets. The committee also asks the school department to cut an additional $274,000 from its budget; the schools make that cut by deferring some expenses and drawing from the Devens fund. After these cuts, there is still a deficit of $319,269.

Feb. 29
The Finance Committee recommends a $320,000 override at a Saturday morning meeting of town boards and department heads.

Mar. 17
The Select Board approves the Finance Committee’s budget with its necessary override.

April 8
The Finance Committee votes unanimously that, should the override fail, the full $320,000 needed to balance the budget should come from the schools.

April 21
The Select Board pushes back, saying that if cuts are needed, they should be spread across both town and school departments in a ratio closer to their historical 30% and 70% shares. The Budget Working Group is set up to create a plan to cut town and school expenses should the override fail. It will also look for further cuts that could be taken if local revenue and state aid drop this year due to the pandemic.

May 13
The Budget Working Group holds its first meeting, and agrees that 70% of the necessary cuts ($224,000) should come from the school budget, with the remaining 30% ($96,000) coming from town departments. Members include Select Board Chair Alice von Loesecke and member Rich Maiore; School Committee members SusanMary Redinger and Sharlene Cronin; Finance Committee members Jennifer Finch and Dick Fellows; School Superintendent Linda Dwight; and representing the town administration, Tim Bragan and Marie Sobalvarro.

May 20
The Budget Working Group agrees to a contingency plan in case the override fails. Bragan provides the committee with $96,000 in suggested cuts to the town budget, which include not filling a budgeted police officer position, not awarding merit pay bonuses to municipal employees, and reducing the tree warden’s budget. Superintendent Dwight tells the committee the schools could save $220,000 by not filling three vacant teacher positions and by reducing the professional development budget by $4,000. Implementing these cuts would balance the budget.

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