HAVERHILL — Superintendent Margaret Marotta's proposed $91.6 million school budget aims to provide more individual attention for students and enhance the social and emotional support available to them as they return to school during the COVID-19 crisis.
Money will also be spent to make sure Spanish-speaking families will have fully-translated school-related materials and be supported as their children head back to school. The budget calls for eight new bilingual liaisons to be hired to assist those families in the school setting.
Marotta presented the budget to the School Committee this week for review before the City Council votes on it Monday. A public hearing, televised on HC Media Channel 9, is scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m. The new fiscal year begins on July 1.
As the budget is being reviewed, school officials are waiting for guidance from the state about how learning will happen in the coming academic year with the COVID-19 crisis continuing. Haverhill school officials have said they are bracing for the possibility of a mix of two methods — learning in classrooms and remote learning online. Remote learning was used for the last two months of the just-completed school year when the coronavirus closed schools.
Surveys completed by families indicate that up to 15% of parents would not send their children to school at a physical building in the fall if given the option, Marotta said. Money is being put aside in the budget for remote learning, she said. Fifteen-hundred new Chromebooks and cases will be purchased, and each middle and high school student currently receives his or her own Chromebook laptop, she said.
To improve equity across the district, money will be spent to hire eight bilingual parent liaisons, Marotta said. The liaisons will work in school buildings to help parents and teachers communicate, make phone calls and answer questions, as well as translating for the school community during meetings, she said. For the first time, money is being spent to translate materials sent home to families into languages other than English, according to the superintendent.
Marotta said school officials are relying heavily on to-be-determined Chapter 70 state aid money and using COVID-19 relief money from the city to develop a "level-funded" budget projection. A level-funded budget allows the district to use a similar amount of staffing and resources as in the last school year, she said.
The school system plans to adopt what's called a "needs-based budget" or "student-based budget," according to the superintendent. This type of budget spends money based on what students need at a particular time instead of the being based on the sheer number of students or staff members, Marotta said.
As tentatively outlined in the budget, money will be spent to expand the PBIS and PAX behavior programs that have been successful at the Consentino and Golden Hill schools and use those programs at other schools. Those positive reinforcement programs recognize and reward children for good behavior. According to Consentino Assistant Principal Richard Poor, the PBIS program in place at that school contributed to a drop of nearly 70% in suspensions over the last two years.
At the high school level, Advanced Placement test fees are being eliminated. AP tests are college-level exams that measure a student's aptitude on material learned in AP courses. Some colleges offer credit if students score high enough on the AP test. Also being eliminated are ice time fees for student athletes such as hockey players.
Transportation remains a big unknown, as the School Committee has yet to agree to a contract with NRT Bus company CEO John McCarthy. McCarthy said he would not transport children in the fall if a contract was not signed by June 10. Assistant Superintendent Michael Pfifferling told School Committee members he and City Solicitor William Cox continue to talk with McCarthy, but an agreement has not yet been reached.
City councilors reacted positively when they reviewed the school budget proposal Tuesday night.
"I don't think we're going to ever have a final budget at all during FY21," Councilor Bill Macek said, echoing what his peers said in support of the proposal. "I pray we're not going to have to cut any (budgets). I think approving this bottom-line budget is more than fair. I've certainly never cut a dime from a school budget and I'm not going to start now."
Marotta praised city leaders for supporting the School Department as it continues to shape the budget.
"For the first time since 2012, no schools were deemed by the state to be under-performing in 2019," Marotta said. "That's important when we move into this conversation about money because what we're spending all this money for is to assure that our kids can read and write and that they have options when they graduate. No matter how much money you spend, if you're not making progress toward that goal, you're doing it wrong. We have to make sure we're getting the most bang for our buck and make sure we're moving these kids forward."