LEE — The Lee School Committee unanimously approved their upcoming fiscal year’s budget, which calls for a 2-percent increase in the taxpayer’s portion of the bill from last year.
All seven members of the committee met via Zoom video conference software on Tuesday, April 7 to accept the $10.33 million budget for the next fiscal year.
After factoring in funding from school choice and circuit breaker funds, taxpayers will be asked to pay $9,497,015 at their upcoming annual town meeting.
Michael Richards, superintendent of Lee Public Schools, said the near $9.5 million requested from taxpayers is “reasonable” and “responsible”, which represents the 2.01-percent increase from last year’s request. The total budget of $10,337,182 reflects a 1.89-percent increase from last year’s fiscal year budget, he added.
Before calling for a motion to approve the budget, Richards said he was proud of the school community for their dedication to meeting students’ needs in a time of uncertainty.
“We’re doing more than teaching and learning in Lee Public Schools these days,” he said. “We are making sure that community members are safe and healthy, and are taken care of.”
Andrea Wadsworth, chairperson of the Lee School Committee, was optimistic of getting the budget passed at town meeting, calling it “conservative” and a “level-budget”.
Among the “major” increases cited in Richards’ budget presentation were the addition of a half-time elementary literacy specialist, negotiated contractual increases, and the hiring of full-time superintendent and a business manager/administrator yet to be hired.
Richards was hired in January and officially started working for the district on Monday, Feb. 24.
Among the expected capital expenses outlined in the budget include $25,000 for the repair and maintenance of the Lee Middle and High School gymnasium floor and a $17,000 expense for a new football scoreboard. At Lee Elementary School, capital expenses include new boilers at the cost of $10,000 and the installation of “magnetic doors” at a cost of $8,000.
Richards said he had been advised by the fire marshal to install doors that come with magnetic releases in the school. Of the $8,000 investment, Richards said $2,000 of the cost would come from school choice funds.
The district will also seek to buy a tractor at the cost of $38,000.
Richards said he expects roughly $2.1 million to come from Chapter 70 funds, in expected state aid. He added that an outline was sent to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) in March about how the district would spend the money to attempt to close equity gaps for students in identified sub-groups. The plan has yet to be formally approved by DESE, but Richards noted the unchartered territories the state has been put in, in light of a global pandemic.
“It’s important for the town to know that there is a plan in place for those monies,” he said.
The committee unanimously voted to approve the upcoming budget by a 7-0 vote.
Following the budget presentation, the committee voted to amend the current academic calendar by opting to continue their remote learning plan for students through the originally scheduled vacation days of Tuesday, April 21 through Friday, April 24.
The state holiday of Patriots’ Day falls on Monday, April 20 and students will not be expected to work on that day.
Under guidance from DESE, schools in the commonwealth are not obligated to be in session after their 185th scheduled day of school. The 185-day calendar is made by school districts with the precaution of five snow days to be accounted for at the end of the academic year.
In Lee, the 185th day of school would be Thursday, June 18.
However, with the school committee voting to amend the school year calendar, the last day of school will become Friday, June 12 — nearly three months to the day of when students were last on the school campus.
Currently, schools are closed throughout the state until at least Monday, May 4, according to the latest order of Gov. Charlie Baker. However, Richards cast some doubts on students returning to school at all during the current academic year.
“I don’t know if we are going to expect a return to school during this current school year,” he said. “Instead, I have a feeling the next time we see students sitting in brick-and-mortar classrooms is going to be in the fall of 2020. I don’t make those decisions, but what I do know is we have an opportunity to continue our learning.”
Richards polled both the district’s faculty and families of students in order to reach the decision to continue remote learning through what was previously scheduled as the district’s spring break.
Of the 93 responses from district faculty members and administrative staff, 91 responded favorably to the idea of continuing the remote teaching and learning plan, and moving the final day of the academic year up by a total of six days.
Of the 258 responses received from family members of district students, 242 responded favorably to amending the current school year calendar.
Wadsworth agreed with the data, emphasizing the importance of keeping students engaged in their remote learning plans.
“This is a stressful time as it is, and the kids need to have regular schedules,” Wadsworth said. “Taking a break after you started for two weeks would interrupt that flow, I believe.”
School Committee member Kathy Hall made the motion to modify the current academic year by foregoing April vacation. The unanimous approval will see remote teaching and learning continue until schools reopen, or to another date yet to be determined, or the close of school, which now stands at Friday, June 12.
“Nobody can go anywhere anyway,” Hall said. “You might as well be investing your time doing this. They can do the work at their own pace, that’s the wonderful thing about this whole situation. I think it’s going to work out extremely well.”