School Committee discusses budget, programs at first virtual meeting

Mar 24, 2020

Among the topics brought up at the Dartmouth School Committee meeting on March 23 were the district’s budget, its School Choice program, and the new “Grab and Go” meal program to provide lunches to children during the coronavirus pandemic.

But it wasn’t the topics under discussion that made the meeting unusual — it was the fact that the discussion took place through a remote meeting held online.

All five members of the School Committee plus four Dartmouth Public School administrators met for the first time from their respective homes, a choice made necessary by social distancing measures taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Recent changes to the state’s open meeting law during the emergency allowed for the remote meeting, which was held over the video conferencing platform Zoom.

In order to allow for public access and comments, the meeting was also streamed live on the Dartmouth High School YouTube channel. 

Members of the public were asked to send comments or questions through email during the meeting. 

At its peak, there were 34 live viewers.

“That’s more than usually come to meetings,” committee chair Kathleen Amaral joked.

A few technical glitches aside, proceedings went relatively smoothly. 

The committee held off on the potentially thorny issue of a $780,000 shortfall in next year’s budget proposal, which is expected to add up to around $45.5 million in total. 

The matter will likely be debated at the committee’s next meeting on April 6.

Instead, officials discussed how much oversight the committee should have over the district’s School Choice program, and the results from the first day of the new “Grab and Go” meal program.

The School Choice program allows students from out of town to attend Dartmouth schools for $5,000 in tuition per student, paid by their home district.

So far, it has generated more than $1.5 million in funding for Dartmouth schools. In the past, funding has been used to purchase laptops for students and fund music stipends and supplies, among many other items.

School Business Administrator Jim Kiely agreed to draft a policy proposal allowing the committee oversight over purchases made with more than $10,000 in funds from the program.

Officials also gave an update on the district’s new “Grab and Go” meal program, which started on March 23 and provides community members with a free two-day supply of breakfast and lunch items during school closures.

On its first day of operation, the program provided 608 meals to Dartmouth families.

“It was more than I thought we’d serve,” Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations James Kiely said. “I’m happy that we can help folks.”

The committee is scheduled to meet online again on April 6.