[Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect a correction. School Committee member Sarah Gold was identified incorrectly.]
MARBLEHEAD — The school budget woes that have plagued the district all year came to a head at a joint meeting between the Finance Committee and four members of the School Committee Monday night.
It was a meeting that generated as many questions as it did answers, but the "bottom line" was there is still no "bottom line" school budget with Town Meeting looming in May.
Both committees were at loggerheads over how to address an $800,000 shortfall in the school department's fiscal 2020 budget.
Some members of the School Committee want a nearly 6 percent increase for next school year's budget, while the town said it can afford nearly 4 percent. This standoff comes at a time when the department does not have a superintendent and business manager as both resigned midyear after the mishandling special education out-of-district placement tuition payments.
"Let me remind you that, we are in unchartered waters here," said Finance Committee Chairman Ben Berman, "so I think we all need to understand what the playbook is."
The School Committee has to present a budget before the Finance Committee and at Town Meeting. The Finance Committee reviews and makes recommendations, but does not set budgets.
However, decisions have to be made soon.
And if the School Committee went with the larger budget request, it would need a general tax override of Proposition 2½ at the May Town Meeting. The Finance Committee was scheduled to make its recommendation on this article Monday night after press time.
It should also be noted that voters will be asked to pay for a $54 million school building to replace the Bell, Coffin and Gerry elementary schools with a new school building on the site of the Bell School on Baldwin Road. The Massachusetts School Building Authority plans to reimburse the town about $14 million, and this plan requires a debt exclusion vote, separate from a general override.
"There have been many suggestions by FinCom, right or wrong, we've made many suggestions and gone through many line items trying to come up to solutions to get that 800-number down, Berman said.
"So, that's where we are at," Berman said. "It's my perception that now we are at a place where, I don't want to speak out of turn, but you guys still don't have a budget voted, right. You are not here tonight to present us with an approved budget for our vote."
School Committee Chairwoman Meredith Tedford said the school board plans a public hearing on its budget on April 4. She also said she was not sure if the board would be ready to vote a number next week, but she understood the clock was ticking.
Berman said it would be a grave mistake to wait until Town Meeting to bring forward a budget, which might mean a recommendation of a level-funded budget if the Finance Committee did not have time to review and approve one. However, Berman said the Finance Committee could hold off making any recommendations on the school budget for now.
Berman urged the committee to get on the same page before its budget hearing on April 4.
The town has agreed to fund the school budget at $39.2 million, a number which takes into account "contract increases," according to a spread sheet from School Committee Vice Chairwoman Jennifer Schaeffner. It's the number town officials can afford.
This represents a $1.4 million, or 3.71 percent increase above the more than $37.8 million budget for this school year.
However, the School Committee's budget stands at nearly $40.1 million, a $800,000 or 5.8 percent increase.
Tedford characterized this as the "working budget." She wondered out loud if there was a way for both sides to meet in the middle.
Berman urged the School Committee to start from the lower number and figure out "what is absolutely necessary." And, School Committee member Meagan Taylor agreed with Berman.
"There has been sort of a lack of acknowledgement, recognition to some extent the nature of a school budget ... particularly for things like staffing that do change throughout the year," Tedford said. That makes the school budget difficult to manage.
Berman said it was clear "there's a disparity between members of the School Committee how they weigh in on this budget, and how they feel about it." Some want to make more cuts than others, while others want to stick with the budget without any cuts.
"There is significantly better cuts available with little to no impact to schools or curriculum than the cuts being considered," Berman said in a brief interview after the joint meeting.
In an unusual move, the School Committee continued to meet in Abbot Hall after the Finance Committee adjourned, at one point trying to figure out what increases in activity fees might look like to help cover the shortfall.
Members Schaeffner, Tedford, Taylor and Sarah Gold deadlocked on whether to approve the higher budget number (Schaeffner and Tedford favored the higher number). The school board then voted to meet Friday at 11 a.m. to hash out the budget some more.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.