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SAUGUS — “Disappointing” was a word used frequently among Saugus School Committee members as they reacted to the district’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget proposed by Superintendent Dr. David DeRuosi last week.
“It’s tough because I feel like we’re underfunded and we always have been. We’re playing catch-up, really,” Committee Chair Thomas Whittredge told The Item Tuesday.
A $725,674 increase over last year’s approved spending of $29.57 million, DeRuosi said the $30.07 million budget introduced at Thursday’s meeting is meant to anticipate student needs as the town prepares its transition to a “post-pandemic landscape,” and includes, among other changes, funding for a full-time school psychologist to aid in the district’s move back to in-person learning.
However, some committee members expressed concern that the new budget still doesn’t support all of the district’s shortcomings, and were skeptical that the $725,674 increase would be supported by Town Meeting members when it comes time to approve the community’s overall budget this spring.
Committee member Arthur Grabowski, who also serves on the board’s finance subcommittee, called the proposed sum a “bare bones” budget and expressed frustration at what he felt was a lack of commitment from the town in regards to the betterment of Saugus schools.
He noted that in 2020, Saugus officials did not approve any financial increase for education compared to the district’s FY19 budget.
“If you look at the historical funding we’ve gotten from the town, it’s never been adequate,” Grabowski said. “The budget does not take into account the measures we need to make our district improve.
“We’re always maintaining, maintaining, maintaining with the amount of money we’re given, and we never seem to get what we ask for, which means we need to make cuts in our operating budget.”
In December 2019 — shortly after the current School Committee began its tenure — DeRuosi released the results of the town’s comprehensive District Review Report, which cited a number of issues, including excessive turnover resulting in inconsistent classroom practices and irresponsible budgeting, as culprits for the poor performance of Saugus Public Schools.
Although DeRuosi expressed doubt at the time that the district’s issues could be entirely attributed to lack of funding, he and the board mutually agreed considerable work still needed to be done to bring the schools up to state standards.
“There was a culture here that there was never enough money,” DeRuosi said in 2019. He later added that the budget “tends to fit the flavor of the town it’s for.”
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has only further complicated matters, with committee member John Hatch noting that the global public health crisis upended the board’s previous goals and aspirations. It forced members to abruptly rearrange their priorities as much of the district’s focus moves to damage control in the 2020-2021 school year.
“I’m disappointed. We had so many ideas when we were elected that we wanted to move ahead with. Then the pandemic hit and it affected everything,” Hatch said. “We’re in a really tough position because we want as much as we can get for the kids, but it’s really difficult to try and gain more money through Town Meeting and other avenues because of how the town’s been affected by the pandemic.”
Hatch, a five-term School Committee member and former Town Meeting member, added he’s aware the pandemic may affect this year’s budgeting process.
“People have lost their jobs. They’re unable to pay their bills,” he said. “Look at what the restaurants have gone through. We’re not getting the meals tax for the town that we did in years prior. It’s affected everything, and we’re in a tough spot. We want to do as much as we can for the kids, but we have to make do with what we have.”
School Committee Vice Chair Ryan Fisher — also a Finance Subcommittee member — said typical year-to-year cost increases have become difficult to cover under the district’s stagnant budget.
“Because COVID hit right in the middle of budget season last year, we got a zero dollar level-funded budget. On the town side, they were level-funded, but their contract accounted for contract increases and so forth,” Fisher said. “Ours was just a zero-dollar increase, and that was right around the time when we came into office and had to settle teacher and union contracts.
“We had a lot of increases to our budget, and we kind of swallowed those into the budget to make it work, but now going into the next year, it becomes difficult.”
Fellow board member Dennis Gould agreed.
“Fortunately, because we had some savings from COVID, at the end of the year we were able to spread some of that money into this year to cover most of that cost, but now the money’s gone and we have a bigger shortfall this year,” he said. “Going backwards on funding means you lose some strategic needs, whether it be an extra reading teacher or math teacher.
“If we have to cut back, we’re not going to move the district forward.”
He added he hopes Saugus schools will be able to benefit from the $4 million in free cash touted by Town Manager Scott Crabtree last year as a result of Saugus’ stable bond rating.
“Why can’t we use some of that to offset a few of the fixed costs?” Gould said.
The board’s next steps will be to vote on and submit the budget to the town manager’s office by the end of the month. A formal vote is scheduled to take place Thursday.
Once submitted, Crabtree will review the budget and submit his own recommendations to the Board of Selectmen, which must then approve it before sending it to Town Meeting for a vote.
“When we ran for School Committee, we wanted to make the district better,” Gould said. “Right now, we’re just fighting to keep the core of education alive, and when you do that, you don’t gain anything. You don’t move the district forward.”
Elyse Carmosino can be reached at email@example.com.