COVENTRY — With the Fiscal Year 2022 budget process now underway, the Coventry School Committee voted last week to approve a preliminary draft budget for what the superintendent warned will be another challenging year. 

Coventry’s school district is currently projecting a deficit of around $1.68 million for the upcoming fiscal year, even with the 4 percent increase in local appropriations included in the draft budget approved during Thursday’s committee meeting. 

“We understand we have to pass a balanced budget, and we will do that — we’ve done that every year,” said Supt. Craig Levis, who noted that the budget is a work in process. “But we also know that this is going to be extremely challenging.”

After the district was essentially level funded by the town from 2009 to 2016, Levis added, the district “[doesn’t] have a choice” but to seek the maximum local increase next year. 

“This didn’t just happen overnight,” he said. “People need to understand how we got here.”

Levis added that during a recent meeting with the state Auditor General’s Office, it was encouraged that the School Committee and Town Council collaborate to correct the systemic issues that plague Coventry’s budget process. 

As for Fiscal Year 2022, it’s still unknown what the district should expect to receive in state aid, but Levis said that right now the assumption is Coventry will be level funded by the state. Uncertainty also lingers around what the district can expect for stimulus funding. 

The school district’s draft budget also features salary increases due to contractual raises and anticipated staffing needs — especially custodians and nurses — due to COVID-19.

“We believe that we need to keep the custodians,” Levis said. “I don’t know how we can go backwards when we were so poorly manned prior.”

Before the pandemic, funding issues had led to the gradual reduction of around 12 of the district’s custodians. The school district has since hired several new custodians to stem the spread of COVID-19. 

There are salary increases from preliminary staffing requests from building principals, as well, although those positions haven’t been vetted yet, Levis said. 

The district is also anticipating significant expenditure increases in areas like out-of-district tuition, transportation and instructional support software. 

A school budget is due this week to the town, and a number of budget meetings will follow in preparation for the all-day referendum.

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