After two meetings in five days, the W-H School Committee on Monday, May 18 unanimously voted to set a budget of $55,320,238 for fiscal 2021.
They also voted unanimously to amend the regional agreement for one year in support of a 50/50 split on the assessment to both towns, and for assessments of $11,214,176.79 for Hanson and $15,367,391.75 for Whitman and transferring $350,000 from excess and deficiency. A first vote adopted a 50/50 assessment split for fiscal year 2021 only — by a 9-1 vote with member Fred Small voting no.
The votes are the first steps in the budget process. Voters at town meeting must still approve the measures.
“You’ve taken three square pegs and found a way to make them round to fit in the hole,” Hanson School Committee member Christopher Howard said of Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak’s work. “This is a step in the right direction. Thank you for what you’ve done.”
“This budget is a first step to supporting the kids in the district,” said Whitman member Dawn Byers.
Szymaniak recommended the $55,320,238 for FY 2021 budget, using $250,000 of Fiscal 2021 Circuit Breaker money in addition to the $450,000 already being used, as well as $350,000 of the $605,000 remaining in the excess and deficiency account, to lower the operating assessment. The budget figure includes the return of the four teaching positions cut last year.
Rollovers from contract savings should result in no change to the $605,000 in E&D when the dust settles.
“This committee doesn’t like using E&D, and I get that, but this money would be rolling into E&D [see below], and I find it as a way to lower the assessment for both communities,” he said.
Potential savings because of the coronavirus closure of district schools were calculated into the E&D numbers so that a 50/50 split on the assessment to both towns would be $11,214,176.79 for Hanson and $15,367,391.75 for Whitman, Szymaniak said.
He met on a Zoom call Monday morning with Christine Lynch and Michelle Griffin of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the district’s legal counsel and Steve Hemmand from the Mass. Association of Regional Schools (MARS) to relay questions from the committee about the the budget as well as de-regionalization that cropped up in the Wednesday, May 13 meeting. Town administrators, a half-dozen school officials and School Committee members were also on the call.
“I think this is laid out really well,” said Howard. “It hits a lot of what we talked about.”
Szymaniak said on May 13, that there have been passionate discussions in both towns regarding the budget bottom line for the school district.
“I’ve heard the word compromise, I’ve heard the word deal, I’ve heard the [phrase] ‘Let’s make this happen,’” he said, noting that he and a couple members of the Regional Agreement Committee spoke with Lynch on whether a compromise was doable and what it might look like.
Lynch discussed what a 50/50 compromise would look like for fiscal 2021 moving toward a statutory formula going forward. Using that split between the statutory number between the two towns as well as dividing the current formula to arrive at an example for the School Committee to discuss.
“This is a one-year only method,” Chairman Bob Hayes reminded School Committee members.
Szymaniak said Monday night that amendment language presented by district legal counsel must be approved by DESE, which he said they have done. He also asked legal counsel to write up an amendment to the agreement to submit to DESE and to place on town meeting warrants as a line item.
“They changed a couple of words around, but the overall gist of that amendment met their baseline for approval from the legal side,” he said. Lynch said it would have to be voted on by the committee to forward to town meetings for a vote before budgets are voted on.
If voters affirm the article, then they could vote a school budget.
However, if the commissioner does not approve the amendment, there is still no budget, Szymaniak said.
“I think every person on this committee has influenced a portion of that [compromise],” Howard said. “It’s something that we can put forward in front of the towns, giving the voters of both Whitman and Hanson an opportunity to move forward. … I really think this is a step in the right direction.”
“There has been a lot of good communication and a lot of good progress,” she said, expressing pleasure at the savings that prevented budget cuts. “My one reservation was putting students first.”
Lynch also cautioned that it will not be a benefit to allow the district to go to a 1/12 budget — the commissioner would then use the FY 2020 budget, the minimum local contribution used under the statutory method and the FY 2021 Chapter 70 funds.
“In her experience, the commissioner has never increased a 1/12 budget over the FY 2020 numbers, whether it be September, October or November,” Szymaniak said. “She understands that this is painful and problematic for districts [but] if the district doesn’t have a budget by Dec.1, the state will take fiscal control using the statutory method. She said no one benefits if the commissioner is involved with the budget.”
Szymaniak said the major question of an 50/50 split amendment is OK with DESE legal going forward, if that’s what the School Committee wants to do to move a budget.
“I’m really asking — almost begging you — to get a budget out of committee,” Szymaniak said March 13 and echoed that sentiment Monday. “I have to issue pink slips to teachers by May 31. I have some very anxious folks, teaching from their home right now, knowing that the School Committee hasn’t affirmed a budget out of committee yet.”
He said Silver Lake Regional has already made some staff cuts. Szymaniak said he is trying to avoid a 1/12 budget.
Hanson committee member Christopher Howard agreed during the May 13 discussion that it has been a contentious debate that has prevented movement on the issue. To prompt a more formal discussion on Monday, he moved the committee accept the amendment with Lynch’s modifications.
On the budget bottom line, Howard is looking to return the four teachers cut last year while looking to excess and deficiency to help bring the numbers down.
Whitman member Steven Bois said Szymaniak’s proposal makes sense, but asked what the agreement amendment committee might think. Whitman’s Christopher Scriven, who sits on that committee, indicated the two are really separate issues.
“This is an amendment to the 1991 existing agreement that’s put forth today,” he said.
Byers questioned the procedure that was being discussed, especially in view of only receiving the three-page amendment proposal a half-hour before the meeting.
Chairman Bob Hayes then suggested waiting a week to vote on the budget, and focusing on voting on the amendment before voting a budget with or without the four teachers and on whether or not to rescind the vote basing the assessment on the statutory method this year.
He suggested giving DESE time to review the amendment to “see if it holds water,” and giving the towns time to weigh in before voting on the budget.
Howard agreed that time for review was fair, as did Whitman member Fred Small.
Szymaniak began the budget discussion with a review of the district’s current financial situation.
Potential savings due to schools being closed since March 19 because of the coronavirus pandemic include: the furloughing of custodial contractor SJ Services as of the first week of April when the wife of an SJ employee contracted the virus; the halting of payments to First Service after the last bus run on March 13; and furloughing special education van drivers from North River Collaborative since April 22, but storage fees and the need to keep vans running for upkeep will have to be paid.
After receiving a full bill for April, Szymaniak contacted SJ Services’ owner and he is revising the bill for April and May. The SJ contract typically costs the district about $99,000 per month, but the district could save $100,000.
While three W-H employees are paid by SJ Services, Szymaniak said he anticipates a substantial reduction in the bill from the company due to the furlough.
Szymaniak said a meeting between school districts in the area and First Student on Monday, May 18 was intended as a negotiation over costs for upkeep of buses, insurance and locked storage, for a savings of $250,000 in fiscal 2020. Savings from the contracts would be rolled over into excess and deficiency.
A modification of a contract with Fox Transportation for other special education transportation needs is also being examined, which could bring a $50,000 to $60,000 savings.
“If we don’t spend it, we’re not getting it back next year,” Szymaniak cautioned, however.
North River van drivers have been working with the district to deliver food to families in need who lack transportation, saving about $60,000.
Copy center contactor Collegiate Press has kept employees on and applied, but was turned down for the first round disaster loans, so the district is discussing options with the company, Szymaniak said. Collegiate press has again applied for a loan, and has issued a credit for next year on their bill, but actual copy costs were frozen on March 13.
Despite a canceled spring sports season, head coaches are being paid a “small amount for their service” in the offseason, but Szymaniak is still anticipating a $65,000 to $70,000 savings in the athletics budget.
“Those are our big-ticket savings, right now that I could see, I didn’t want to put numbers to them because I didn’t have hard numbers, and I don’t want the committee to be upset if those numbers come in lower than I’m anticipating due to whatever expenditures we have going forward,” he said.
On the other side of the ledger, pre-kindergarten tuition is running at a deficit because of the school closing. Savings from SJ Services, athletics and other closure-related cost savings would help fill that projected $300,000 shortfall, Szymaniak said Monday.
“There’s a buzz around both communities around Circuit Breaker,” Szymaniak said of the special education aid the district receives. “Folks have said that we have millions and millions of dollars that we recover in special education every year.”
Tuffy said the program received funds to assist with the cost of individual education plans, with the district using them to pay for the next year’s special ed costs, usually transportation and tuition, because those costs are easy to track — $1,171,000 in fiscal 2020.
“But those carryovers are often used to take care of for unexpected and unbudgeted expenses,” he said. At the end of last fiscal year, the carry-over was $692.
This year’s budget assumed that the district would to spend $450,000 and expect to get the $171,000 plus the $692 carryover makes $1,172,000 available, he said.
Howard asked where remaining funds “live” until the next budget cycle, to which Tuffy replied the money goes to a separate Circuit Breaker fund.
COVID-19-related mental health support costs, meanwhile, don’t include lost revenue such as preschool tuition. A state emergency fund speaks to “any costs” related to closing schools and moving to remote learning, which the district will apply for, but also does not include lost tuition revenue.
CARES funds are also intended as reimbursement funds that must be carefully accounted for, according to Szymaniak.
The preschool line starts off $97,000 in the red for more than $300,000 in fiscal 2021. Szymaniak said it is usually in the negative because the district hasn’t fully funded it since is a partially tuition-based program.
There are also deficits expected in some facilities accounts, according to Tuffy.