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Mount Greylock Tapping Reserves to Cover High Cost of COVID-19 Expenses
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:05AM / Monday, September 28, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock School Committee on Thursday learned the financial impact of COVID-19 on the two-town school district.
 
Business Manager Joe Bergeron laid out the known budget impacts and talked about some of the costs still to come, and the price tag is steep: $680,000 at the moment.
 
More than half, $355,000 is covered by state grants the district has received, but on Thursday he asked the School Committee to approve pulling up to $325,000 from the district's School Choice and tuition revolver accounts.
 
The School Committee unanimously approved that suggestion to draw down reserves, which means that, for now, the school district will not be returning to Lanesborough and Williamstown voters with a revised budget request for the 2020-21 academic year.
 
But Bergeron was quick to note that tapping reserves is not a long-term solution, and given the logjam in Washington, D.C., around COVID-19 relief for state and local governments, the district could be on its own going forward.
 
"We cannot bank on more grants," Bergeron told the committee. "Our suggestion is utilize School Choice and tuition to make that possible. Across the two, we currently have a little more north of a $1 million balance. This is something that we can absorb. It is not sustainable for multiple years if this pandemic continues on for long, we're going to need to re-evaluate a lot of the ways we're approaching this.
 
"The caveat I have when I bring this forward is we are going to need more [personal protective equipment]. As we look into the winter, the substitute budget that we have traditionally had is probably not going to cut it, given the guidelines that have come out from the state about the degree to which people should be cautious about coming into work.
 
"And there are more unknowns. We've been hit with every unknown in the book for the last couple of months, and I'm sure there will be more as school starts."
 
The increased costs laid out on Thursday are necessary to allow Mount Greylock to institute the hybrid learning model that the district will implement for all three of its schools starting on Oct. 5 and provide the remote earning option mandated by the commonwealth for families who choose that approach for their children.
 
When the district -- as planned -- goes to full in-person instruction for all families that desire it, there likely will be additional costs.
 
"The significant disruption that would happen with any shift to having full school buildings, if we are able to move to a full in-person … we would need to consider splitting three to six class sections within the elementary school," Bergeron said. "Because those class sizes are in the 20-and-above realm. Anything 16 or above creates an extraordinarily cramped classroom [with 6-foot social distancing], one that really is not friendly for any kind of behavioral need to get up, walk around, and do anything outside of sitting in your designated spot.
 
"So any shift we might try to make to full in-person, we would have to very closely evaluate what that meant for additional well-out-of-budget expenditures to try to make that happen."
 
The largest single area in the $680,000 grand total for coronavirus-related expenses is the district's Elementary Remote Academy. The School Committee earlier this month learned that a drop in the number of families choosing a remote-only option was going to have budget implications.
 
On Thursday, Bergeron explained how much.
 
"Our numbers went from 20 to 25 percent opting from the state-mandated remote learning opportunity [based on preliminary surveys] to south of 10 percent," he said. "What that did was it led to us not being able to evaluate opportunities to reduce the number of sections in each grade. We were unable to envision any world where we could do that and utilize the staff that we had in the building in a one-to-one way."
 
Instead, for pupils at the district's two elementary schools, Mount Greylock is adding a 0.5-FTE (full-time equivalent) special education teacher, four FTE paraprofessionals, a Title 1 interventionist and a full-time teacher. That adds up to $280,000 in salaries not anticipated in the budget voters in both towns approved this summer.
 
That averages to about $4,200 per pupil for the 67 pupils in the remote academy according to numbers the School Committee heard on Thursday.
 
The remaining $400,000 in expenses are related to getting students into the buildings. The costs included:
  • $16,000 for new desks.
  • $5,000 (so far) on upgrading the HVAC systems.
  • $25,000 for ultraviolet lights to kill viruses and bacteria in the building's air.
  • $11,000 for six 20-by-40 tents.
  • $45,000 for PPE, hand sanitizer dispensers, Lexan dividers in the restrooms, etc.
  • $175,000 for seven paraprofessional FTEs (though only five were related to COVID-19 protocols; the other two were for unforeseen student needs, Bergeron said).
  • $123,000 for two new teachers.
Bergeron indicated that the budget impacts could have been greater before full regionalization of the three Lanesborough/Williamstown public schools.
 
"The remote academy is something that is unprecedented for us," he said. "A few years ago, our elementary schools couldn't have conceived of it, but it's something that's a shared burden and responsibility for the two. Our ability to try to acquire the PPE across the district is something where it's been helpful to have a team approach to it to try to make sure everyone has what they need."
 
Bergeron said the district has taken a conservative approach to budgeting for its School Choice and tuition revenue in recent years, which has allowed it to build up a reserve for the "one-year shock" that COVID-19 has dealt to the budget.
 
School Committee member Al Terranova agreed.
 
"The good news is we have the money available," Terranova said. "The other good news is we hope we can get additional grants so we don't have to use the whole $325,000. We're not writing a check for $325,000 tomorrow morning. We are voting to use up to $325,000 in our School Choice and tuition money, and hopefully the state can come through with some additional grants, and that would be less.
 
"This is a great time to think about School Choice and tuition. … I think the School Choice and tuition money is kind of like a safety net of education, and here's a real example of why … we should be actively engaging in School Choice and tuition. It's an important line item."
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