Whitman and Hanson town administrators will meet with school district Business Services Director Christine Suckow over the summer to examine the numbers and create a document outlining revenue — and expenses for all departments and capital improvement needs — as they begin work on a comprehensive budget approach for next fiscal year.
Another meeting will be scheduled when that process is concluded, most likely before Sept. 11, as Whitman Town Administrator Frank Lynam urged a realistic fiscal outlook be ready by September.
Former W-H School Committee Chairman Wilbur Danner of Hanson had suggested appointing subcommittees to examine the “actual cost of the schools or the departments” and bring that information back for discussion.
“We can sit here and talk forever about what we need. We need something tangible … then work together to try and reach that goal,” agreed School Committee member Robert Trotta.
More than two dozen town and school district officials, School Committee members and concerned residents from both communities met Monday, June 12, conducting a wide-ranging discussion to begin the process of determining how to best coordinate town and school budgets to meet ongoing fiscal challenges.
“This is not a School Committee meeting,” said Chairman Bob Hayes, who facilitated the session Monday night. “This is a meeting of people in town and town officials. … [We’re trying] to be objective to try and settle some of this budget stuff, and it’s not just school budgets — the towns are having the same issues.”
The greatest need is one of more revenue to fund all town budgets, officials said.
“We’re trying to figure out how, collectively, how to move forward,” Hayes said. “For years people have urged us to start early to see what we could do. Now we’re off and running.”
He stressed the group is in no way trying to circumvent boards of selectmen, but rather seeks to come up with ideas for addressing financial challenges facing both communities.
State Rep. Josh Cutler, D-Duxbury, attended and state Rep. Geoff Diehl, R-Whitman was represented by staff member David Walsh.
“You’re not alone,” Cutler said. “Every town is facing these kind of challenges. … At the state level, we’re having the same sort of issues with revenue, our revenues are not meeting their benchmarks.”
New state revenue sources are being considered, such as an Airbnb tax or a surtax on the state income tax, as well as the revenue from now-legal recreational marijuana, once governing legislation is complete, he said. Absent major changes such as those, Cutler doesn’t expect to see Chapter 70 increases for the next three years or so.
“I think we should be suing the state,” School Committee member Fred Small said about cuts to such mandated reimbursement programs.
Hanson Selectmen Chairman James McGahan and Whitman Selectmen Chairman Carl Kowalski also attended along with Whitman Finance Committee member Shawn Kain and Michael Dugan of the Hanson Finance Committee.
“We’re coming down to two basic principals,” Dugan said. “Where’s the revenue coming from and what are the expenses we need to support. … Poor choice of words, but where the biggest fires are going to be.”
Schools represent about 33 percent of Hanson’s budget and 65 percent of Whitman’s. Student population also has an affect on those percentages.
Kain urged a greater level of transparency in the budgeting and financial planning process, with a long-term approach.
“If we’re going to ask people to sacrifice, it’s very important that we demonstrate to people how we’re sacrificing in all departments,” Kain said.
Lynam said gross estimates from the towns and the schools by August or September would help identify what the towns can expect for the next fiscal year’s budgets.
“The bigger picture is our ability to identify our resources, your needs and put them together to figure out how to meet them,” Lynam said. “The elephant in the room is how much of that budget has to be allocated to education. … What I would like to see from the schools is earlier estimates.”
Whitman resident Christopher George asked why firefighters and police personnel did not face the same layoffs as teachers during recent tight budget years.
“The only department that lost employees was the schools,” he said. “Every other town around us has figured out they need more revenue. … In the absence of more revenue, the other departments have, essentially, kept level service and at some point that’s got to give.”
Lynam said finding the revenue was the only viable solution.
“We’re not going to cut fire,” he said. “We’re not going to have people waiting for an ambulance for 13 minutes because only one shift’s on. You’re not going to cut police with everything that’s going on.”
He said there are three departments that deliver a “huge percentage of essential services” — the schools, police and fire department — along with public works.
“The rest of us are overhead,” Lynam said. “But without that overhead, nothing else gets done.”
Practically speaking, George said he is talking about an operational override that could result in cuts across the board to all departments if it failed.
“This group is talking more of getting together to see how we’re going to expand revenue, not how we’re going to kill each other,” Hayes said.
Whitman resident Marshall Ottina also urged that public safety officials be included in the meetings to help ensure the financial plan is comprehensive, representing all town departments.
“Department-wise [approach] tends to pit one against the other, and we don’t want to do that anymore because nobody wins,” agreed Whitman-Hanson Education Association Vice President Beth Stafford. “If we present a united front and present one thing ‘for the town’ … I think that’s really important.”
School Committee member Dan Cullity noted that the overall budget problem started in 2008 when the state reduced its Chapter 70 reimbursement from about 70 percent to about 50 percent. The state has also informed the district that the towns must increase funding closer to the expected target share.
Grants that have been depended on to fill the void and support needed programs are also beginning to run out, which present another budget challenge.
McGahan asked about the possibility of hiring a professional grant-writer, perhaps one paid on the basis of the successful applications they write.
“Grants are called soft money,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner. “They’re going to be here for a period of time and then they’re gone, so in terms of sustainability that’s a concern.”
The district often has to partner with other districts or educational collaboratives that better qualify with demographic profiles in obtaining grants.
School Committee member Alexandra Taylor asked about the likelihood of attracting more commercial development to benefit the tax base.
“From a practical standpoint, the only way to generate that revenue is to move Whitman and Hanson to a highway,” Lynam said. “We’re too far off the road to attract large businesses.”
While Whitman does well with small business, revenue raising is limited to taxes and fees, he said.
Elimination or charging fees for non-mandated busing of school children was also questioned as a possible revenue source by a parent. But Lynam argued families with two working parents often depend on that transportation for their children.
“That’s a voters’ decision,” he said.
Gilbert-Whitner also noted the district is required by law to provide transportation for any student who lives two miles or more from a school, and is reimbursed for transporting students within a mile and a half.
Whitman resident Cheryl George pointed to surrounding towns’ success in passing operational overrides to support all departments. But others pointed out, Whitman-Hanson’s regional school district, and the commercial tax base of those surrounding towns, makes the process more difficult.