Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak presented a proposed draft version of the fiscal 2020 regional school budget to the School Committee on Wednesday, Dec. 12 at a meeting attended by town officials, state Rep. Josh Cutler, department heads and residents from Whitman and Hanson.
“We thought it prudent to get into the budget, and discuss where we are with the budget,” said School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes. “As you know, our budget is a lot dependent on what happens with the governor’s budget, so these numbers are preliminary off the history we’ve taken over the last [seven] years.”
Hayes said the intent was to give select boards and finance committees an early indication of what the schools’ numbers might be, with a budget discussion planned for every School Committee meeting until the May town meetings.
“It will give the towns the opportunity to see what the budgets of the departments are, where we’re going, how we’re going to get there and how we can possibly make it all work,” Hayes said.
The official school budget will be rolled out in February.
“I just wanted to apologize and take ownership if I have misled anybody in the process of this budget,” Szymaniak said, noting he had planned to give the finance committees the first look at it, after internal talks began in November. “Nothing formal has come out.”
He and district Business Services Director Christine Suckow had met with a budget working group over the fall to develop a capital plan for the next five years. He presented the budget numbers to the Whitman Finance Committee Tuesday, Dec. 18, despite some social media claims that it had already been discussed.
Szymaniak stressed he would not have done that before presenting even preliminary numbers to the School Committee.
“They represent their folks in the communities,” Szymaniak said of the department heads and town officials attending. “I represent the kids and the 600-plus employees here. I want to do my best for them.”
The budget at this point — and Szymaniak also stressed its preliminary status — is $53,457,929 [See site-based breakdown at top right]. That represents $2,934,748 over current budget of $50,523,181 for a level-service budget. Szymaniak said the preliminary numbers do not include revenues.
“This is a discussion,” he said. “This isn’t our formal presentation to the community.”
A budget book will be presented to town officials and the community in February, but the rough numbers provide information on the issues the schools are facing.
“We get Cadillacs for Chevys [price-tag],” Szymaniak said of teacher and administrator salaries. “But we won’t be able to maintain that if we’re not successful in a level-service budget next year. I will need to go back and do some damage to the good things and the positive things that we’ve done.”
Szymaniak ran through each school’s site-based expenses, especially utilities, custodial, transportation, phone and trash fees as well as district technology, facilities, debt, tuitions and special education and administrative costs.
Also included in technology services — at $1,371,365 — are salaries, contracted services, equipment maintenance and replacement, supplies and travel. Facilities costs — at $1,498,591 — include salaries, snow removal, contracted services, supplies, building and equipment maintenance, emergency repairs, fuel/oil, gas, police details and overtime.
Special education costs — at $6,177,353 are up by $750,000 from fiscal 2019 and include tutoring services, administrative support salaries, supplies, summer materials, travel, contracted services, legal costs, out-of-district placements and summer salaries.
Administration costs — at $4,103,043 — include central office salaries, School Committee expenses, supplies, legal costs, principals’ salaries, curriculum directors’ salaries, photocopying costs, contracted services and instructional materials.
Insurance — $8,171,802 —and debt — $890,938 —are also included in debt calculations.
“These are rough numbers, but I wanted people … to understand where we are,” Szymaniak said. “We are not adding any programs. What [Assistant Superintendent] George [Ferro] and I have done is restructuring things that we currently have and renegotiating … which might make some funds available to add programs out of the current level-service budget. We’re not adding people, we’re restructuring positions to potentially add services that are needed in the elementary schools.”
The district employs 664 staff members, including daily substitute teachers. There are 3,823 students enrolled in W-H, ages 3 to 22.
Ferro noted that the district is “on the hook for 100-percent of transportation costs” of students educated by out-of-district placements in special education programs.
School Committee member Fred Small agreed that the district is obligated to pay those transportation costs.
“I think the one key that’s missing, obviously, is to fine-tune what the revenue side is going to look like,” Small said.
While he agreed that some people object to the level of administrative salaries, Szymaniak ($164,532 to increase to $168,645) said he and Ferro are transparent about their pay, which he said is in line with the rest of the state, excluding areas of western Massachusetts, where the cost of living is lower.
“Whatever you need to know, you just have to ask a question,” Szymaniak said, noting he is always available to answer resident’s questions on the phone or in-person at his office or even a local coffee shop. He will not discuss budget issues on social media, he said.
“I will not answer questions on Facebook,” he said. “I can’t win.”
Hayes reminded residents that the annual reports of both towns list salaries of all School Department employees.
“There is nothing hidden in this budget,” Hayes said. “This is a large operation for both towns to run and it gets expensive.”
Per-pupil expenditures in W-H, as of last week’s figures from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, show the district spends $12,175.19 compared to a state average of $15,449.62.
W-H gets a bit less than 50 percent of its budget from the state.
Cutler discussed the state revenue picture with the School Committee.
The legislature has already begun its budget process with the consensus revenue hearing last week, Cutler said. Revenue growth for fiscal 2018 was stronger than previous years and fiscal 2019 is so far 4.1 percent over benchmarks, with potential for upsides, as surpluses are now called. For fiscal 2020, predictions are in the range for a $29.2 to $29.38 billion, or an increase of 2.9 or 3.5 percent, including a reduction in state income tax.
“On the economy, generally speaking, if I were a meteorologist I’d classify as it as mostly sunny with a chance of showers,” he said. “They were careful not to talk about the word recession — nobody wants to talk about that word —they did stress this kind of growth can’t continue, it’s not sustainable.”
Cutler said a recession is not forecast for 2020, but a slowdown is not ruled out.
School Committee member Christopher Howard asked if Szymaniak could quantify all the unfunded mandates facing the district. Small suggested the under-funded mandates be included in that list as well as areas where revenues can be increased.
“What I would like to see our state do, somehow, is tie up our Chapter 70 money to a percentage,” he said. “Instead of a $20 to $25 increase per pupil, if the gave us a 2 or 2 ½-percent increase … I think we could solve a very large problem.” Increased state reimbursement for regional transportation, circuit-breaker funds and homeless transportation are the areas he cited were local representatives to the General Court could advocate for the district, according to Small.
The average cost to run W-H buses every day is $8,811.64, according to Szymaniak.
“The push-back that I hear at the state level in terms of the regional school transportation issue is they don’t want to give 100 percent,” Cutler said. “They feel if they do that, town’s don’t have skin in the game.”
Small countered that the district has skin in the game, having changed starting times on bus routes to save money and made efforts to obtain a better contract.
“Lack of competition when you go out to bid on a busing contract is really, really a big problem,” he said.