School panel discusses next steps
The W-H Regional School Committee Monday, May 23 began discussion on its next steps following the defeat of the override during Saturday’s town elections.
Chairman Bob Hayes noted the committee has already consulted legal counsel on the matter, explaining that the panel faces a Sept. 15 deadline to either bring the percentages down or take other action to arrive at a budget.
“I thought it would be incumbent to speak with both of the finance committees before we made that type of decision to see financially where they are, rather than to just leap into something,” Hayes said.
The school committee will meet next at 7 p.m., Wednesday, June 8, at which time they expect more information on the status of the increase in per-pupil state funding from the current level of $20 to $55 as proposed by the region’s legislators within the state budget.
“It’s incumbent upon this committee to make some strong decisions about what we are going to do,” Hayes said as the committee began a lengthy discussion on factors that may have contributed to the override’s failure and how voters’ doubts can be addressed.
“It’s obvious that this is a fairly critical point in time … and I know emotions are running high for lots of people,” he said.
He said elected officials must lead the way to finding a solution.
“Let’s find a way,” he said. “There’s a way we can make some of this work, we’ve just got to dig in and get at it.”
Committee members expressed disappointment on the override outcome and refuting the contention by some voters that the School Department does not live within its budget.
Member Dan Cullity noted that, in Whitman, no other town department took a hit during the recession, as the schools did, and cautioned the public against armchair quarterbacking.
“We’ve got mandates that we have to follow,” he said. “They’re not fully funded, that takes more out of the budget.”
Robert Trotta stepped away from the dais to address his committee as a resident, parent and retired educator.
“Yes, it was an aggressive budget request, but one that was much needed,” Trotta said. “We cannot become a second-rate school system. We must put together a budget strategy immediately.”
Member Kevin Lynam asked what the committee can realistically do now.
“We asked for 20 percent and the towns said no,” Lynam said. “Is there an opportunity for compromise on both sides?” He suggested perhaps working to determine what can be afforded from year to year — such as 3 percent one year and 6 percent the next — comparing such a process to a farmer rotating crops.
Hayes said that was one of the reasons he wanted to set up meetings with the finance committees. Member Robert O’Brien Jr., suggested another try at forming a joint financial subcommittee between the towns and school committee members.
Improved communication with voters was also cited as a need. Among the inaccuracies and misunderstandings members of the committee and Support Our Schools group said they had encountered during discourse with voters were:
• The district does not live within its means;
• Volunteers could be used to reopen school libraries;
• Non-resident children are attending district schools;
• The budget gap can be closed by cuts in administration; and
• The schools should use the excess and deficiency funds to close the budget gap.
State cutbacks in Chapter 70 reimbursement as a way of motivating the towns to reach target share of local contributions was cited as a major problem.
“It’s not quite as easy as running your own house,” Hayes said. “There’s no runaway train here.”
School officials stressed that, while “volunteers are great helpers,” schools require licensed librarians with a master’s degree work as librarians — as is required in town libraries.
Even pupils in lower grades, including kindergarten, are assigned research projects on which school librarians are needed to reinforce critical thinking skills and help teach students what research materials are credible and which are not.
“Our kids begin research when they begin school,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner said.
She also stressed that, when non-resident students — not participating in school choice — are discovered, they are removed.
“We just had experiences in the past two weeks where we did determine that we had students living here under what I would call false pretences,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “Those students are no longer enrolled in the W-H Regional School District.”
She stressed that any information about such cases is addressed through local law enforcement, registrars and building principals.
Gilbert-Whitner said the district is also below state average in the number of administrative staff members. The district’s cost-saving measures won the district an award from a business manager’s group that enabled the awarding of a scholarship to a graduating senior two years ago.
Residents and educators in the audience also spoke — often with emotion — about how the budget impasse can be bridged.
Whitman resident Christopher George advocated sharing the pain with the larger community by assessing user fees for all extracurricular activities or exacting cuts on other town departments such as those the School Department dealt with during the recession. He also advocated earmarking revenue from new growth for the schools.
“People don’t understand the real story,” George said. “We spend less than any other town around us. We have cut program, after program, after program. … It’s time for the other departments to either make cuts or go for the override themselves.”
Hanson Finance Committee Chairman Michael Wojdag and several members of the School Committee said that was not a scenario they are advocating. Wojdag also said the idea of taking more from excess and deficiency is not sound fiscal planning.
“FinCom at a $20 million budget does not have $1.2 million to cut out of the Hanson budget,” Wojdag said. “The Hanson FinCom last year supported the new elementary school … and we were the first ones to support the $3 million [student success] budget.”
He argued the problem is a revenue, not a finance committee problem.
Hayes also suggested figuring out how to use social media better to respond to confusion and criticism posted online. Teachers in the audience also pledged to continue working on their own time and spending out of their own pocket to help their pupils succeed, urging residents now talking on social media about moving out of the school district to stay.
“We really are going to continue to provide the best education for your kids,” said Stephanie Powers, a first-grade teacher at Duval School.
WHEA representative Beth Stafford also reminded residents that teachers have given up, or limited, raises, furlough days, course reimbursements and other benefits to help the region weather the recession.
School vote key issue in election
Voters in Whitman and Hanson on Saturday, May 21 rejected a ballot question seeking an override of Proposition 2 ½ to fund the WHRSD Student Success operating budget for fiscal year 2017.
The vote was close in Whitman, where 77 votes made the difference — 1,000 voted no to 923 votes in support of an override. Hanson, however, crushed the proposal with 1,444 voting no and 770 voting yes.
“We were very disappointed with the results of the override election,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner. “It really is a loss for the children of Whitman and Hanson.”
She also expressed thanks to all those who worked trying to get the student success component of the budget passed and pledged to continue to serve the district’s school children.
“Tremendously disappointed” was the phrase Whitman School Committee member Fred Small used to sum up the override result, “especially to be so close in one town and so far in the other.”
“We have to respect the wishes of the taxpayer, and I somehow take it personally that, perhaps somehow some way, I didn’t communicate clear enough with people. I don’t know what else we could have done.”
Voting had been heavy ahead of Election Day, as Hanson Town Clerk Elizabeth Sloan reported that 264 absentee ballots had been cast in the election by the time the polls opened at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 21. In Whitman, more than 125 absentee votes had been cast. There were short lines at polls in both towns when doors opened.
Sloan was expecting a 40-percent turnout. They got 31 percent.
School Committee candidates in both towns had expressed optimism as they held signs for their campaigns or in support of the override.
Incumbents Daniel Cullity and Robert Trotta had been cautiously optimistic about the override’s chances and, after the results were in, related their disappointment.
“We got elected, but the override didn’t go through,” Cullity said of the result. “That’s part of the game. The people spoke and, obviously, it was too much of a tax burden at this point.”
He said the School Committee now has to go back to work with the selectmen and finance committees to get the towns closer to target share on school funding.
Trotta, Cullity win
Trotta was the top vote-getter with 1,151 votes, followed by Cullity with 965. Newcomer Marshall Ottina fell short with 781 votes.
“I focused on the ‘we’ not ‘me,’” Ottina said, noting that the override had been his main concern. “We learned some lessons and we’ll regroup for next year and see what we need to do to get our schools where they need to be.”
The day had started on an optimistic note in Hanson as well, with candidates and override partisans holding signs at the polls.
“I’m feeling positive,” Hanson candidate Michael Jones said about the override’s chances. He and Christopher Howard were basically running unopposed as the only two candidates running for two open seats representing Hanson on the School Committee.
Jones received 1,284 votes and Howard received 1,229.
Howard, meanwhile, said he would leave the prognostication regarding the override to others.
“I think it’s going to go great,” SOS member Lisa Ryan said Saturday morning. “I think we’re going to get this. There’s been a lot of positive response, especially in the last couple of weeks.”
Hanson override opponent Mark Vess credited both sides of the override question for running positive, informative campaigns.
“I have great admiration for the work that the school side folks did,” he said.
He was hesitant, however, to offer an early prediction on the outcome.
“I think it’s going to be close,” he said on arriving to hold a “vote no” sign. “I think both sides have worked extremely hard in getting out the message that they want to make. … This is what democracy is all about, you never know until people come out at the polls.”
There was a bit of controversy outside the polling place about a half hour into voting.
Vess said he felt compelled to call the police to the Hanson polling place because members of SOS were blocking him from holding his anti-override sign in a visible location and “had assigned a person” to shadow him. SOS sign-holders disputed the claim and, after both sides spoke with an officer, they were told to “play nice in the sandbox,” Vess said.
Police Chief Michael Miksch said Monday there were no other calls to the polling place recorded in the log, but that duty officers are routinely assigned to the polls to handle any issues that might arise.
In Hanson, the only contested race on the ballot was for tree warden, but resident Joseph Campbell of Woodbine Avenue was also outside the polling place waging a write-in campaign for Planning Board. There had been no announced candidates for Planning Board or Board of Health vacancies. Hanlon won the tree warden position 959 to 909 for Means. Running unopposed, Selectman Kenny Mitchell received 1,554 votes.
“I want to express my heart-felt thanks to the voters of Hanson for re-electing me to my first full term,” Mitchell stated. “I am honored and humbled.”
Campbell received 166 write-in votes for Planning Board.
“I wondered what’s going on in the town,” Campbell said. “The seats should never go vacant.”
After a long discussion with his wife, and consideration of the requirements and meeting schedules of the two offices, he opted to run for Planning Board.
“Everything fits where I’m able to devote some time to it,” he said. “I had to be honest about the position and decided I’d be able to give more on the Planning Board as opposed to the Board of Health.”
Business growth in town is an important issue for him.
“I think the people of Hanson don’t pat themselves on the back enough to say we are run by business,” Campbell said. “I’m not against business at all, but I think that Hanson should stay a rural community. It’s probably its best asset.”
Both tree warden candidates Michael Means and David Hanlon also held signs outside the polls Saturday morning.
“I’m confident,” Means said. “It’s not [a position that’s] really well-known.”
Hanlon agreed the job is not familiar to a lot of voters.
“I tried to get the information out there,” he said. Hanlon had appeared on Kevin Tocci’s “Crosstalk” program on Whitman-Hanson Community Access TV and said there’s has been a lot of discussion on social media about what the tree warden does.
“I think they’re pretty good,” Hanlon said of his chances. “There’s going to be a big turnout with the school question and tree warden is the only contested race.”