WEST NEWBURY — Pentucket Regional School District officials are preparing for a financially precarious year in 2021 with a projected operating deficit of $609,067.

For fiscal 2021, the proposed budget is $44,664,901 – a 9.64% increase over fiscal 2020.

Over the last several months, Superintendent Justin Bartholomew has been vocal about the increasing costs of special education and how it could affect the budget. As costs continue to rise, Pentucket has actually seen a decrease in the number of special education students and the number of out-of-district placements.

For fiscal 2021, Pentucket's special education costs have increased by more than $700,000. That number, Bartholomew said, is equivalent to nearly 10 teaching positions. Though the district is not looking to make cuts in personnel, Bartholomew hopes this will help people understand the magnitude of the problem.

The Student Opportunity Act, which Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law late last year, is supposed to increase education funding by $1.5 billion over the next seven years. Bartholomew said this law largely benefits urban school districts.

Pentucket received only an additional $30 per student in Chapter 70 education funding, equating to $72,000.

Another major factor is the Pentucket Regional Middle-High School building project, which was approved by West Newbury, Groveland and Merrimac voters last year. Capital assessments to the three towns are estimated to increase $2.43 million, almost entirely due to this new building.

With these factors, the superintendent said there is little room for improvement in the district.

On Dec. 17, Bartholomew and Business Manager Greg Labrecque spoke with the School Committee about three initiatives they wanted to include in the budget.

Beginning in September, they ask that the committee eliminate the fee for full-day kindergarten. 

"From a teaching standpoint, from a student standpoint, there is no question that the full day is more beneficial," Bartholomew said.

Secondly, they asked to purchase Chromebooks for all seventh-grade students for use during their remaining years at Pentucket. Each Chromebook costs just over $200 and the district saw a need to provide students with a consistent resource.

Students were already using them in the elementary schools, but did not have access to them after sixth grade. Teachers were given Chromebooks at the beginning of last summer.

The School Committee agreed to include these two things, but was not onboard with the third, which aimed to reduce or eliminate athletic user fees for families. The current fees range from $100 to $175 per sport, with the total capped at $500 per family. The committee decided to keep the fees for now.

Once all of the budget numbers are finalized, Labrecque will meet with the town manager in West Newbury and the finance directors in Groveland and Merrimac. With few options, Bartholomew said the district could attempt to force one or all three towns into an override.

"But if you put one town into override, you are putting them in a really bad position," he said. "If it passes, they would have to cut into their own municipality and that's devastating to them. We're very aware of that and we're not trying to put them in a bad position."

Bartholomew said the district is reviewing what can be cut from the budget, but his focus is "what will make the least amount of impact on children."

One option is to use substitute teachers less, which is possible due to technology. If a teacher is out sick for a day, an assignment could be posted on Google Classroom. Rather than sitting in a classroom with a substitute teacher, students could move to a bigger place such as a study hall, where an adult is already present. The model would not be used for long-term absences, Bartholomew said.

Another option could be increasing class sizes at the high school, which the superintendent knows is not ideal. 

"When you start to have those kind of numbers — and we know it's been trending that way — there is only one outcome," he said of the budget. "I will be very protective of early elementary because that is where the foundation of learning takes place, the foundation of skills take place."

As the district moves forward with discussions, Bartholomew said they will do their best not to cut personnel.

"The things that will have the biggest impact on children are teachers and administrators," he said. "Those are sacred things and you don't want to touch those things."

If teachers or administrators retire, the district may shuffle personnel around instead of seeking replacements, he said.

The fiscal 2021 budget will be up for discussion at the School Committee meeting Feb. 25 at 6:15 p.m. in the high school cafeteria. Families and community members are invited to ask questions and share their concerns during the public comment period. For more details on the budget, go to www.prsd.org.

Staff writer Heather Alterisio can be reached via email at halterisio@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3149. Follow her on Twitter @HeathAlt.

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