The W-H Regional School Committee on Thursday, March 12 decided to reconvene later this month to set a budget for fiscal 2021.
“We have to make decisions,” said Committee Chairman Bob Hayes. “This discussion that we’ve had, we’ve had the last three or four meetings. Nothing’s changed.”
Committee member Steve Bois had moved that assessments totaling $28,528,937 be divided between the two towns, but it was rejected by a 5-4 vote. Seven votes were required to pass it.
Another meeting was then rescheduled, initially until March 18, but pushed forward this week to Wednesday, March 25 due to concerns over the coronavirus and public safety.
“I’m not sure we can support the required [budget], it pains me to say that, but I can say that because I think we really need to do going forward, is work with both towns for the following year, to do a full restore, which will require an override in both towns,” School Committee member Christopher Howard said. “I am not comfortable moving forward with a budget until I hear the towns have reached a compromise.”
He also said he does not see why a budget has to be set now. Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said the district’s legal counsel has advised that a budget must be set by 30 days prior to the May 4 town meetings.
Szymaniak added that, while compromise is good, he does not know what the towns can afford right now.
“I don’t know what to cut right now,” he said. “I think we gave you a fair budget that’s level-serviced. … We tried not to give you everything.”
He said the committee needs to tell him how much to cut and he would have to find where the cuts must be made.
Whitman resident Christopher George, named this month as a citizen at-large member of a regional agreement committee, said he understands, the assessment formulas, has a level head and that the two towns are close to a compromise.
“What I would say, though, is there can’t be a compromise without a number that we’re working toward,” George said.
Howard disagreed, arguing that the towns have to come to an agreement on how the compromise can be made before numbers are decided upon. School Committee member Dan Cullity advocated that the panel join the discussions between the two select boards and town administrators as they discuss an assessment compromise.
Hanson Selectmen Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett agreed that Szymaniak and Assistant Superintendent George Ferro would be valuable additions to the process.
She also said that, while she appreciated the School Committee’s position and perspective, she found it troubling that the move to a statutory assessment formula was difficult.
“But if you set the assessment at the place that you just talked about, I can assure you that you’ve left me nothing that I can go back to my voters and the citizens of Hanson with,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen and, in effect, if you set it at that, you’re going to be setting a ball in motion that I am powerless to stop.”
She said it would end up having the state take over.
Hanson is willing to go back and consider a modest override, but anything more would “eviscerate” her town’s finances. She advocated for the return of several educational programs, but warned it could not all be done in a single year.
Howard asked if any compromise had been discussed between the two towns. FitzGerald-Kemmett said the only way for that to be achieved would be to build in a gradual change toward the statutory formula during the revision of the regional agreement.
Cullity agreed it would come back to a compromise in negotiating the regional agreement.
“I’d rather see something like that happen than lose this district to the state,” he said.
Adding back $280,000 for the four elementary-grade teachers laid off last year was discussed as a priority to control class sizes in elementary grades. The pupils would be at Duval and Indian Head as well as science class at the high school. Conley has been OK, but there have been 17 new students move into the district since October and some 200 new housing units will be fully online by the fall.
“Twenty-eight students in a fourth-grade class isn’t where we want to be, optimally,” Szymaniak said. “For grades three-plus, 25 is OK, under that — and we have first- and second-grades of 26 — I’d like that to be 19, and that’s where we can go if we get more staff.”
The teachers had not been included in the original required budget, but were moved up from the recommended budget.
“We have to give principals the autonomy to put people in the right places. Our job here, in our spot, is to make sure they have the tools, and the tools are their teachers,” Szymaniak said.
“I’m fully cognizant of the fact that we do not, and are not, funding our schools to the level that we should,” Committee member Fred Small said, asking if returning the teachers is a necessity. “That being said, there’s blood out of a stone, and we have to be cognizant of what the towns can afford at this point.”
“I think we think it’s a necessity,” Ferro said. “I think, if you’re a parent of a student in that class, it’s a necessity, I think if you’re a teacher in that class, it’s a necessity. I think if you work at that building, it’s a necessity so, yeah, I think it’s a necessity.”
School Committee member Dawn Byers advocated returning the teachers, as well, noting that the towns have benefitted from increased state aid since the Education Reform Act in 1993.
“When we talk about collateral damage, it is the kids,” she said. “It is the students who have lost time — the kids that are in eighth grade right now and they lost that foreign language learning they had last year and that half-day kindergarten that doesn’t have the opportunity. I don’t see how we can cut anything.”
Szymaniak cautioned that state take-over of the school budget is not the answer to the impasse during a recent meeting to discuss Chapter 70 distribution between town officials and Mass. Association of Regional Schools (MARS) Executive Director Maureen Marshall and member Stephen Hemmand. The cost of de-regionalization and impact of a state takeover of the school budget were also discussed.
Both MARS representatives told local officials that they “might have a conversation about what’s affordable for both communities, potentially, and that might not be what we’re asking for to keep level service at this point,” Szymaniak said. “The two communities have to agree and [Hemmand] said there’s pain to that.”