School Committee Revisits Budget In Face of COVID-19

by Simran Khatri, News Reporter & Eva Zacharakis, News Editor
graphic by Kaila Hanna

The School Committee began discussing modifications to the budget for the 2020-2021 school year (FY21) on April 27.

The original FY21 budget, passed on April 6, was set to feature an $8.3 million increase from this year’s budget, bringing it up to $244,645,343 for Newton’s 22 schools and two alternative high school programs. However, it was recently revised to decrease by $1.5 million, Superintendent David Fleishman said. 

Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education Toby Romer said that these changes are in expectation of revenue decreases for the City of Newton as quarantine continues.

“The changes that [the School Committee] is worried about are decreases in revenue for the City of Newton because of decreasing tax revenue [from] businesses like hotels, because people aren’t travelling, and restaurants, because [people] aren’t going out to dinner as much,” he said. 

Fleishman said that Newton’s school budget has five pillars: program breadth, class sizes, facilities operations, student services and educational infrastructure.

The modified FY21 funds allocated by the School Committee will be used for COVID-19 relief, like giving food to students who are food-insecure and giving Chromebooks to seniors and middle-school students to use for distance learning. 

“Our focus has really been to support students and families [and to] make sure they have technology and food,” Fleishman said. “You need the basics first before you can do any kind of school.”

Fleishman said that the Newton Schools Foundation donated 300 Chromebooks. School Committee Chair Ruth Goldman said that more Chromebooks were taken from school computer carts and distributed to students in need.

The COVID-19 relief budget also focuses on students’ mental health. 

“We want to make sure that our staff members, social workers, school psychologists and teachers are reaching out to families,” Fleishman said. “This is a public health crisis, but when people get stressed, it is also a mental health crisis.” 

Part of the budget has been used to hire new district-wide directors, including  directors of diversity, of social and emotional learning and of sustainability. 

Sophomore and non-voting member of the School Committee Brendan Weissel said that he believes the new directors will be beneficial to the School Committee. 

“These three positions will most definitely be helpful. All three [positions] are the basis for a lot of decisions [the School Committee makes],” he said. “Hiring people to be in charge and oversee these divisions will be very beneficial.”

Compensation for the high enrollment in middle schools is another area that will see an increase in funding for this coming school year. 

Goldman said that next year’s kindergarten and first-grade classes are comparatively smaller than that of incoming sixth graders. This disparity in class size will result in elementary school teachers temporarily being moved up to the middle-school level. 

The number of special-education teachers will also be decreased due to low enrollment, Goldman said. 

Because school is closed, the School Committee is saving some money that would regularly go toward sustaining in-school activities, Goldman said.

“By not running an athletic program, we saved some money,” she said. “Some of those funds [may] go towards other things that we might need during the summer and fall.”

Oak Hill Middle School, which is expecting increased enrollment, will see renovations, and Horace Mann Elementary School will be renovated to make room for a new preschool. Ward 1 School Committee member Bridget Ray-Canada said that a plan for a new playground at Horace Mann was scrapped due to the shortage of funding. 

Ray said summer initiatives have been scaled back to compensate for the budget cuts.

“We really focused on removing some of our summer projects we have so that we reduce our summer projects by $500,000, and then we will look for other places where we can reduce,” she said. 

Fleishman said that supporting students is the main goal of the School Committee, even with the uncertainty of next year. 

“We will have to reduce the budget, but our goal is not to reduce staff, because we know we will need staff for students particularly during this challenging time,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next, and students need support.”