The School Committee voted to reduce the fiscal 2019 assessment increase to the towns to 9.5 percent over the current budget during a special meeting on Monday, April 23.
The committee also gave its final approval of revisions to the regional agreement. Both issues will go before voters at town meetings on Monday, May 7.
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes took part in the meeting remotely by conference call, necessitating voice votes, and member Kevin Lynam was absent. Vice Chairman Fred Small presided over the meeting.
Hanson Town Administrator Michael McCue, who could not attend due to ongoing meetings with his town’s Finance Committee, sent an email to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner Monday advising her that Hanson could go to 9.5 percent, but no higher.
“The town of Hanson will do its best to meet an overall assessment [increase] of 9.5 percent,” McCue wrote and Small read into the record. “Anything in excess of this amount cannot be supported by our FY ’19 budget. Additional reductions in the assessment are obviously helpful.”
At 9.5 percent, the increase to the budget, is $1,924,598. For Whitman that would mean $1,151,295 and Hanson’s share is $773,304 based on enrollment.
He said long-term strategic planning would be necessary before work begins on the fiscal 2020 budget, however.
“This is probably one of the more difficult things that we face,” said School Committee member Robert Trotta, noting the committee had initially debated seeking a 13.65-percent increase to include no-cost all-day kindergarten in the budget. “Obviously that would have been too rich for both towns, and I feel as though, as a School Committee member, going down to 9.5 is probably the right thing to do.”
An 11-percent increase would have added a special ed science instructor at each middle school as well as an elementary-level social worker parent liaison.
The 9.5-percent increase provides level services. A 5-percent increase would have meant the loss of 19 positions, according to Gilbert-Whitner.
“We have a very solid strategic plan and our plan tells us we need no-cost full-day kindergarten, it tells us that our foreign language program is not very strong,” she said, noting that new English, science and math programs are also needed. “It’s all going to cost money.”
Trotta said the School Committee sets assessments with what is best for the school system in mind, but it runs into town budget constraints.
“There’s been a lot of talk about starting this budget process earlier in the year,” he said. “It seems as the budget process as it stands doesn’t really seem to gel when it comes to this idea.”
School Committee member Steven Bois agreed, adding that budgets reflect what students need more than what the district needs — as well as providing other essential town services.
“I want a four-minute ambulance response, I want the best in our police personnel,” he said. “We hope that we can find a way to do this.”
School Committee member Michael Jones also wants taxpayers to realize the schools are struggling, too.
“There’s no new trucks, there’s no new employees, in this budget,” he said. “We’re losing this year. … This is not a step forward at 9.5 percent. In my opinion, it’s a step backward.”
“From my point of view, we’re providing the same services that we provided this year — nothing additional — and we’re eliminating a position from one of the schools that was there due to a bubble in enrollment,” Small said.
“It’s really got to be everyone coming together — all the departments — It’s good fire, it’s good police, it’s good schools. It’s not one at the expense of the others,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “We also have to push at the state level.”
Unfunded and underfunded mandates from state and federal legislation were again criticized.
“I don’t think the people that are making those decisions contact the people who would be impacted by [them],” Trotta said.
“I sit here again disappointed,” said School Committee member Christopher Howard. “I’m disappointed as a whole in where we’re at both within this budget process and where we are collectively with the towns. … It comes down to what should those communities look like?”
Hayes said both towns have been among the most supportive of the schools in the state.
“While 9.5 percent isn’t ideal, it’s probably as much as the towns can afford, whether we’re talking about police or fire or any of those people,” he said. “They’re very supportive of the schools and the things that we do, so I would support the 9.5 percent 100-percent.”
In other business, Mass. Association of Regional Schools (MARS) consultant Malcolm Reid and Steve Donovan and MARS Assistant Executive Director Stephen Hemman attended the meeting.
Hemman outlined the next steps for the regional agreement at Gilbert-Whitman’s request.
Five or six original copies of the document will be sent to each town meeting with appropriate signatures of School Committee members and certified votes from each Town Meeting — if passed by the required majority vote — will be attached for submission to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for the commissioner’s signature.
Town Meeting will not be permitted to change anything.
“This is the document,” Hemman said. “If one town wants to change something, then it can’t happen.”
Small also noted the agreement has been reviewed and accepted by the School Department’s legal counsel.
Hayes, who also chaired the revision subcommittee, thanked those who served on that subcommittee and otherwise assisted with the process.
“We had people from the town, we had selectmen, we had a lot of people who participated in this committee and did a tremendous amount of work,” Hayes said.
Gilbert-Whitner also thanked the MARS consultants.
“They’ve been with us all the way through the process,” she said. “We began this a year ago … going over an agreement that had been typed on an Apple IIe computer. We’ve come a long way with this — there were schools in it that are no longer in existence. I think this is a great document for the future.”