The Falmouth School Committee presented its budget for the coming year. It also approved a science field trip and a job description for a Food Justice Program coordinator at its meeting on Tuesday, January 11.

Superintendent Lori S. Duerr presented the Fiscal Year 2023 budget with the director of finance Patrick Murphy. This was the fourth presentation of the budget, with previous ones being held for Lawrence School and Falmouth High School, Morse Pond, and the four elementary schools. Dr. Duerr highlighted the reconciliation of student needs with staffing needs during the budget formation process and said they have worked to align the budget with the highest priorities for the coming school year.

The superintendent is asking the school committee to approve a budget of $52,950,000 for the 2023 fiscal year, which is a 2.8 percent increase over last year’s budget. Most of the money—over 90 percent—comes from the town’s allocation to the school district, and about 82 percent of the overall budget goes toward paying salaries.

“The recommended departmental increase was 2.3 percent,” said Mr. Murphy. “We’re asking for a little bit more than that—an extra $250,000 or so.”

Mr. Murphy explained that that extra money from the town will go toward covering the recently increased payroll expenses and pandemic costs, which are being worked into the operating budget as year three of the pandemic begins. An additional line item for these costs has been added to each of the building budgets and the nurse supply budget.

“With federal pandemic funds dwindling away over the next year and a half, we need to begin to build into our operating budget some of those recurring costs for best practices that we’ve developed over the year: disinfectant gels, enhanced HVAC filters, additional sanitizing of buildings, masks, gloves, those other things,” he said.

The budget also incorporates the gradual loss of federal funding through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund. Dr. Duerr said that the schools are slowly decreasing their support staff in accordance with the loss of funding, from 90 support staff members last year to 60 this year.

Dr. Duerr said the budget will be presented to the public one final time on Wednesday, January 19, at 6 PM via Zoom, at which time any member of the public will be able to comment and ask questions about the budget. The final vote for the budget will take place on February 15.

Another agenda item for the board was to act on the job description for the Food Justice Program coordinator, which was presented to the board in December. Board member Leah Palmer expressed concerns over the fact that the position for Food Justice coordinator and the program were included in the budget for 2023, but Dr. Duerr explained that funding for that program is actually coming from the Falmouth Education Foundation.

“Even though we do have it in the budget line that we could add this position, I did hear the concerns,” she said. “There are additional funds that are going to be coming our way because of the estimated cost for Upper Cape Tech, so the town is going to pass along those savings to us. The amount would cover the cost of this position for two years. So that’s another way that we could do that, even though it is built into the budget and we could pay for it out of the budget.”

The Food Justice Program centers around agriculture and the connection between race, climate, and how current and future food systems have evolved. Per the job description, the program coordinator would be responsible for developing daily and long-term lesson plans, implementing curriculum objectives, and executing effective laboratory and fieldwork for students, which would ideally include an outdoor greenhouse-type space. Students will also engage with local cultures, learning about the land directly from the Wampanoag and Cape Verdean peoples.

While the board was in unanimous agreement that the idea for the program is wonderful, there were still some reservations. Most of the conversation was about the logistics of the program, not the job description itself, which was what the board was tasked with voting on.

Much of the concern from board members was regarding the rushed time frame of the program, which was only brought before the board last month, and the potential allocation of funds in a way that may be more useful to students.

The position is for a .4 vacancy, equivalent to $30,000. Board member William Rider said that money could be used in a way that would bolster student support systems.

“I just think those dollars can be used more appropriately with the needs of our kids,” he said. “Especially with the pandemic, with [English Language Learners], with support, with guidance, with additional anything to support kids. I really have concerns about this.”

Mr. Murphy explained that the funding for the program is based on an estimated reduction in the number of students going to Upper Cape Tech.

“It’s almost a one-to-one allocation to put them toward a CVT-style program, so there is some logic there,” he said.

Board members William Dorfner, Terri Medeiros, and Ms. Palmer agreed with Mr. Rider’s concerns and raised additional concerns regarding the projected success of the program.

“I am concerned about funding a new position without knowing how successful this program will be,” Ms. Palmer said.

Henry St. Julien, career/vocational-technical education program coordinator, assured board members that implementation of the program is dependent upon student interest. If students do not sign up for the course, he said, it will not run. It was also pointed out that small-scale pilot programs similar to the food justice program have already run and been successful, so this is an opportunity to expand the idea into a full-fledged program.

Dr. Duerr assured the board that if student numbers are not there, then nobody would be hired for the position and the program would not run.

“It’s okay to be spontaneous,” said board member Melissa Keefe. “We have the funding. This is just for a job description and if it happens, that’s amazing. If the kids want it and we have FEF support, it really sounds like a no-brainer.”

The board narrowly voted to approve the job description for the position, with five votes in favor, three against, and one abstention.

In other business, the board unanimously voted to approve a science field trip for Falmouth High students. Teachers Chris Brothers and Heather Goodwin will finally be able to take a group of students for a gene-editing course at Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, having rescheduled the field trip from its original dates in April 2020.

Falmouth High was meant to be the pilot school for the program, but the pandemic derailed those plans and other schools have since participated. The program will teach students about CRISPR gene-editing techniques and allow students to participate and learn in a hands-on environment. Students will also attend a number of lectures from MBL staff and participate in discussions regarding the ethics of gene-editing practices.

Students are currently in the application process for the field trip, in which they must write an essay and get a teacher recommendation. A group of 12 to 14 students will be selected for the MBL CRISPR gene-editing course, and spend four days and three nights on the MBL campus in dormitories, at no cost to students or the school.

“MBL has a very generous donor who has funded this program for a number of schools on the Cape,” Ms. Brothers said. “We’re hopeful that we can participate this year.”

The program is scheduled for March 13 through 16, with students leaving midday on Sunday and returning midday on Wednesday. In accordance with COVID-19 protocols, students will have single accommodations in the MBL dormitories.

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