School budget taps federal grants to keep local raise low

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AGAWAM – As expected, on April 24, the school board unanimously passed the school’s budget for fiscal year 2023 (FY23) as presented by Superintendent Sheila Hoffman.

The budget was approved following a public hearing prior to the regular school committee meeting. No citizen attended the hearing to vote for or against the budget of nearly $49 million.

During the hearing, Hoffman explained that the FY23 budget was built from key initiatives in the district’s strategic plan that focus on rebuilding the district’s school communities and redefining student needs.

« Emergency aid for elementary and secondary schools [ESSER] the funds cover some of the additional costs we incurred due to the [coronavirus] pandemic, particularly in the areas of emotional and mental health, academic support to address learning gaps, and operational improvements,” the school superintendent said.

Additionally, building a data collection and analysis system that promotes consistency between and across grade levels continues to be a priority in the district. Hoffman said the new budget will support this effort with software, hardware and educational resources. There is also funding for assessment and adaptive learning software for academic purposes, and software that meets social and emotional needs.

ESSER funds were part of federal government relief spending for COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021, although they can be spent until September 2024. For the 2022-23 school year, ESSER funds will be used to new pre-kindergarten summer programs; salaries for additional special education counselors and contracted services to support students struggling with the transition to in-person learning; salary for a Family Resource Center coordinator position; and the salary of a part-time federal grants writer position.
Hoffman said the grants coordinator will be hired primarily to manage ESSER’s expenses and implement the activities the district plans with the funds.

“There’s a lot of record keeping and management to do. It’s a temporary three-year position at the moment,” Hoffman said.

The Grants Coordinator will work September through June for 10-20 hours per week and should have knowledge of Federal Education Grants and have experience writing and administering Federal Grants as well as experience with the State Department of Secondary and Elementary Education (DESE) grants management system.

Additional skills required by the grants coordinator include financial management skills, tracking expenses and income, and an understanding of federal grant procurement laws. The Grants Coordinator will also be responsible for quarterly drawdowns, amendments, and reporting, as well as coordinating deliverables with the district’s Federal Grants Liaison.

Hoffman said most of the competitive grants the district applies to DESE for are annual grants.

“At the end of each year, we assess where we are and decide whether or not we will reapply for the following year,” she added.

The district applied for competitive grants for its high school Innovation Pathways program and for increased access to mental health services. Hoffman said his administrative team — including Assistant Superintendent Cheryl Salomao, Director of Social and Emotional Learning Marlene DeJesus, business office staff and consultants — generally applies for and implements the grants the district has received.

After the budget was passed, Hoffman said the budget process “has gone well” this year and previous years due to the “high regard” for education in Agawam and the support the district enjoys. from the school committee and the municipal council.

“Both sets of officials ask relevant questions to ensure they understand the budget rationale. They all want Agawam students to have the resources they need to succeed, while exercising financial prudence,” she added.

The superintendent said her administration communicates with both finance subcommittees throughout the budget process “so everyone knows the budget is built around the district’s strategic plan and goals for student success.”

Because of city councilors’ input during the budget process, Hoffman said she doesn’t anticipate any issues with the city council approving the school department’s budget. The FY23 budget increases local school spending by just under $1 million, an increase of 1.95%. This is one of the lowest school budget increases in several years.

Shelley Borgatti-Reed, who chairs the school board’s budget and finance subcommittee, said the FY23 budget process was “very well done and fiscally responsible,” especially considering that the cost business has increased lately.

“Despite rising transportation and tuition costs, Superintendent Hoffman and her staff have found ways to limit the budget increase, without having to cut any programs. Approximately 82% of our budget is spent on salaries, so keeping the increase to just under 2% is exceptional.

Borgatti-Reed added that Agawam is “lucky” to receive ESSER funds to address the impact of COVID-19 on schools in the city. She said the federal funds helped the district avoid eliminating any programs or services for students.

It was Borgatti-Reed’s first time chairing the subcommittee, which had been led by former committee member Anthony Bonavita for many years.

“I was honored to be appointed chair of the subcommittee. It’s a big responsibility, especially to replace Anthony, who knew the process well,” she said.

The FY23 School Budget is available to the public at the Agawam Public Library, the Town Clerk’s Office at City Hall, and the Superintendent’s Office. It can also be viewed at www.agawamed.org and cable channel 15.

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