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PALMER — Superintendent Matthew Francis presented the fiscal year 2025 budget for Palmer Public Schools to the Town Council during its March 11 meeting, serving as a first look into the School Department’s requested funds for the year. This presentation was required by the town’s charter, Town Council President Barbara Barry said.

The “preliminary” budget was previously presented to the School Committee during a special meeting on March 6. A final budget will likely not come before the School Committee until April, Francis stated.

Francis began the presentation by highlighting factors that impacted the School Department’s decisions concerning the budget. One factor was the increased population of low-income students, which Francis stated contributed to about a “roughly $120,000” increase in Title 1 funding.

“Our current low-income percentage is roughly 61% as of today. Pre-pandemic, it was at 39.1%,” he explained. “So, within five years time, our students and our population has gotten 20% more in free and reduced lunch and this takes on a lot more needs with students when they fall within low income.”

Another factor Francis discussed were two new initiatives that will begin in FY25.

The first is the Business and Finance Pathways program, which will enable freshmen of the 2024-25 school year to take career-specific courses that prepare them for a certain field following graduation.

The second initiative is the modification of the town’s preschool program. Francis explained that Palmer Public Schools currently offer morning and afternoon sessions of preschool across three classrooms. These sections come at a cost for families. However, in FY25, the School Department is looking to offer four classrooms at no cost to residents, including access to full-day programs, he said.

“We are looking at offering two full-day classrooms, primarily for 4-year-olds, and then we’re offering a third classroom, which is a hybrid full-day for 4-year-olds, and then an a.m. [session] that might go into a p.m. [session] for older 3-year-olds,” Francis said. An additional classroom would also conduct morning and afternoon sections, as the program currently offers.

This need was identified through resident surveys and would only result in about $30,000 of lost revenue, he stated. In FY26, the increased number of fully enrolled preschool students who are not paying tuition would also be considered in the town’s Chapter 70 funding allotment from the state.

Overall, the department’s initial budget request from the town is $18.4 million, which is an increase of $792,548 or 4.5% from FY24’s budget, Francis said. Despite absorbing a $1.7 million deficit, this budget also represents the lowest increase of total district expenses in the previous three budgets at only $91,589 or 0.4%.

Francis emphasized that, while there will be a reduction in staff for FY25, this was a result of “retirements and resignations” and that there are no staff cuts connected to budget reductions at this stage. The reductions are equivalent to eight to 10 full-time positions being cut, he said.

Other components of the FY25 budget include the addition of crossing guards and bus monitors as well as the department’s decision to “pre-buy” certain materials with FY24’s remaining Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds. Through multi-year agreements, the department is looking to purchase materials potentially up to FY27, Francis said.

During discussion with the Town Council, Francis highlighted that the Department was losing the equivalent of about $7 million to students attending charter, private, virtual, parochial, vocational or home schools instead of Palmer Public Schools. To address this, Francis said the department is working to bring greater awareness to the programs offered by the public school system. He stated that students who leave the school system often state that other schools offer more electives or sports than Palmer.

Ultimately, Barry stated that the School Department’s requested 4.5% increase was likely not “100% doable,” due to the town’s financial restrictions for FY25. She explained that the increase asked for the town’s “whole pie,” which would not be possible because other departments will also require funding.

“It’s not about not wanting to give,” Barry said about the requested funds, “it’s just not there.”

In response, Francis stated that the School Department has been “shorted roughly $1.6 million” over the past five years through not being granted the average budget increase seen by other town departments. When asked how the schools would adapt if the town could not support the requested increase, he stated that the department would be unable to hire needed additional support and would potentially have to look at a reduction in materials or salaries to accommodate the reduced funds.

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