COVENTRY — Hoping to avoid a bit of the stress of the last budget cycle, the school committee got a head start on its fiscal year 2021 budget talks during a workshop this week. 

Though it’s still early in the process, the district at this point is projected to face a deficit of around $1.6 million in the coming year — and that’s if the town agrees to grant a 3 percent appropriation increase. 

District Finance Director Sarah Mangiarelli told councilors she anticipates state aid funding will pose the biggest challenge in the upcoming budget. 

The district can expect a state aid decrease of around $748,000, Mangiarelli said, based largely on a decline in enrollment and a decrease in the town’s State Share Ratio. 

As discussion got underway Thursday, Mangiarelli echoed a message shared repeatedly during last year’s dramatic budget cycle.

“Regardless of what we think is ultimately going to happen — where funding will come from, what the school committee wants to move forward with, what the council is willing to support, and ultimately what the taxpayers are willing to do — we still feel that we have a responsibility to present the budget that’s necessary to run the schools,” she said. 

But unlike the last few budget cycles, which had the school committee “scrambl[ing] to make all these cuts at the end,” Mangiarelli said this year she wants to do things a bit differently. She suggested, for example, presenting a couple of budgets to show the discrepancies between the budget the school committee deems necessary and one likely to be supported by the town council. 

In order to do that, Mangiarelli continued, the school committee’s proposed budget should be informed by a set of predetermined goals for the district. She said the hope is that by aligning the budget with goals identified by school administrators, building principals and the school committee, it will be clear “why we need the funding that we need.”

“I have a hard time sitting here easily making recommendations to come up with a $1.6 million cut,” she added. “We need to strategize a little bit more.”

Superintendent Craig Levis echoed that. 

“The real challenge is, I don’t know where we’re going to cut,” he said. “We have to dive deep.”

The district goals identified so far by school administrators focus on three main areas.

First, Levis shared Thursday, is core instruction, curriculum and professional development; second is community engagement; and finally, administrators determined that identifying funding strategies will be important moving forward.

“My take-away is that the system we have is not sustainable,” Levis said. “We have to be creative, and look at other ways to mitigate our expenses but also generate some revenue.”

School committee member Luke Murray shared a similar concern. He said what the school district should focus on above all is “creating a financially stable path for the district.” 

“I think the number one educational thing we can do for our students is keep the same qualified teacher in the classroom,” he added. “I don’t know how we do that, but I think it’s going to involve some hard choices.”

Adding that the district has for too long been “taking shots in the dark,” Murray suggested there be a cost benefit analysis to determine which programs are actually beneficial to the district. 

He suggested hiring an outside firm to help write a five- or 10-year plan to establish financial sustainability within the district. 

Levis argued, however, that programs like Career and Technical Education (CTE) aren’t necessarily meant to generate revenue.

“We’ve been forced into this conversation about revenue with CTE, but we shouldn’t be talking about that,” he said. “We should be saying, ‘do we have quality programs that our kids are benefiting from?”

He added that, thanks to many variables, a 10-year projection would be tough.

“There’s so much going on right now,” Levis said. 

There was also some discussion around the importance of working closely with the town council. 

“I think we would be remiss not to work together with the town to try and get through this,” Mangiarelli said. “This problem didn’t start over night, and it certainly won’t be fixed over night.”

The school committee will present a budget to the town council during a joint meeting on Dec. 9.

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