WINSTED — The Northwestern Regional 7 Board of Education approved its 2020-21 budget this week, a package that calls for a $544,000 increase.
The budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 totals $22.061 million, reflecting an increase of 2.53 percent over the 2019-20 budget of $21.517 million.
Region 7 schools serve the towns of Barkhamsted, New Hartford, Colebrook and Norfolk.
Superintendent of Schools Judy Palmer said the budget process was “extremely difficult” this year.
“In a regional board of education, the board sits as both the BOE and the board of finance during the budget process,” she said. “The school board has been working very hard to reduce the budget as far as we possibly can, in response to the economic hardships COVID-19 has caused. The school board did a great job managing both sides of this process.”
The original spending proposal totaled $22,228,493, with an increase of 3.31 percent, or $711,215.
In March, the first round of cuts totaled $86,848, which came out of salaries, bringing the proposed increase to 2.9 percent.
At the May 27 meeting, the budget was reduced to $22.061 million, with an additional reduction of $80,158 from salaries, capital spending and various purchase line items.
In an email, James Gaskins, the district’s director of finance and operations, noted that special education costs represent 1.94 percent of the budget increase, with regular education expenses representing 0.59 percent of the increase. “We cannot control special education expenses, which are dictated by state and federal mandates,” Gaskins wrote.
Northwest Region 7 High School is one of only nine schools in the state named a “school of distinction” by the state Department of Education, a source of pride for the district, and particularly for Palmer, who stressed this week that everything possible must be done to retain that distinction.
“(The school board has) done such a great job supporting our school system, and we’re one of nine schools of distinction in the state,” she said during the meeting this week.
“We have to balance that with keeping costs average or try to keep them lower,” Palmer said. “I understand the need to keep the costs down, and we have done everything we can to bring a budget that keeps spending as low as possible, while supporting high quality education in Northwest Region 7 ... it’s what’s necessary for these children. It’s imperative that we support the children.”
Palmer also pointed to the district’s ongoing effort to improve students’ math proficiency and test scores.
“Thanks to the hard work of our math department, our scores are going up,” she said. “It’s something we’ve worked for, for grades K through 12. It’s a multiple year effort to align our curriculum and instruction, to have a more cohesive math program. I’m very pleased that we were able to provide additional support for students who were struggling with math.”
During the meeting this week, school board Vice Chairman Robert Jerram asked Gaskin whether the district would realize any savings or revenue from money spent during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as unspent money from canceled programs, such as sports.
“There’s no spring sports,” Jerram said. “There’s no stipends (for sports program staffing), no buses; there have been no clubs held; no substitute teachers. Will we realize savings from those?”
“Those savings won’t show up until the 2021-22 budget,” Gaskin said, adding that the district was getting a $24,000 grant from the federal CARES Act. That will be included in next year’s budget. I don’t know if we even got it yet.”
Jerram said he was concerned about residents in the district who were facing unemployment.
“When we met last time, we didn’t know the April unemployment numbers,” he said. ‘They’re out now, and they’re horrendous — 515,000 applications for unemployment. If those numbers hold true, that’s a lot of households in our district. When this budget first came out, we all agreed it was a good budget. Now we’re in May, and the bottom has fallen out.”
Gaskin reminded the board that when school resumes in the fall, there will be new challenges for the district.
“Serving 1,100 kids and staff, all under one roof, will have challenges we don’t even know exist right now,” he said. “Nobody’s worried about that more than me. So right from the beginning, we are trying to minimize the impact of our budgets on the local taxpayers.”
The approved budget can be viewed online here: https://bit.ly/36I4Nhr.