The School Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 15 declined action Whitman resident Shawn Kain’s suggestion it consider some kind of compromise between the statutory assessment formula favored by Whitman and the current alternative formula sought by Hanson.
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said that the issue, not included on the evening’s agenda, would not be something on which members could act.
“There are a lot of discussions concerning budget with both towns right now,” Hayes said.
He noted Hanson Town Counsel Kate Feodoroff’s reminder to Selectmen that seven votes — or two-thirds of the School Committee, regardless how many are present — are required to pass a budget.
“To me it seems pretty clear that it would be difficult to get seven votes with such a split on the budget,” Kain said, noting that could lead to continued division in the budget process from there. “It’s really setting us up for the whole process to go down toward the state taking over in December, which sounds terrible to me.”
Taking that, and Whitman’s decision to follow the statutory method, he suggested “it might be helpful,” if the School Committee, particularly Whitman members, to reconsider their recent 6-4 vote — split along community lines — to favor the statutory assessment formula.
“Long-term, sustainable funding for education will only come through consensus, and this, right now, is not consensus,” Kain said. “I think to slow down, reconsider and take another look at that vote would be helpful.”
The School Committee will hear the district’s fiscal 2021 budget presentation at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 5 in a meeting where it will be the only item on the agenda, according to Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak.
Another meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 26 will feature a regular agenda.
Interim Business Manager John Tuffy provided a year-to-date report on revenue and expenditures.
“At this time, there is not one particular line item I’m terribly concerned about,” he said. “We’re up to date with our bills, we haven’t spent quite as much of our budget as we had this time last year and that’s relatively good news.”
Szymaniak said a recent meeting he had with the Whitman Finance Committee was a positive one, with an improvement in tone over a session at the same point in the budget process last year.
Kain then asked for the assessment formula reconsideration.
“We don’t need it,” said School Committee member Steve Bois. “We already voted an assessment method, and we’re moving forward.”
He told Kain that, with all due respect, he should let the committee do its job.
“We’re in this all together, so I think it might be helpful to keep together,” Bois said. “You’re kind of tearing us apart in a way that … we’re not even looking at it that way.”
Bois pointed out that the School District has not even had a chance to meet with the Hanson Finance Committee.
Kain countered that without a Hanson School Committee member changing their vote, the assessment would fail to pass the committee and, ultimately, it would lead to a state takeover of the school budget.
School Committee member Fred Small said he fully expects that the panel will come up with a budget, but that the assessment is a secondary item that will go to town meetings.
“It’s our job to try and do a budget that is going to meet the needs of our pupils,” he said. “We also did an assessment method where you also look at what you feel is fair and proper as we are charged to do.”
Small charged that, “by coming here and continually going after these things,” all Kain was doing was beating a dead horse and not allowing the committee to do its work.
Hanson School Committee members Christopher Howard and Robert O’Brien Jr., however said some of Kain’s concerns are very relevant.
“It puts the folks that represent Hanson in a very difficult position to support a budget with an assessment methodology that isn’t supportable,” Howard said stressing that he was speaking for himself. “I would heed Mr. Kain’s words and think them through, because … you had four people from the town of Hanson unanimously vote against that methodology, so to make the leap that that’s over and done with and we’re just going to move into budget — that’s a tough leap for me to make.”
O’Briens said he echoed everything Howard said.
School Committee member Dawn Byers and Whitman Finance Committee member Rosemary Connolly cautioned that a state takeover “sounds really scary” and — while it can be, because it is the unknown — it is not the same as state receivership, which is based on underperformance in academics.
The schools will operate normally, and classes will be held.
“When the state takes over, it’s always in the best interests of the students, too,” Byers said. “Fiscal control of a district by the state is just because we couldn’t get a budget and they help us to get there.”
Hayes added that, in the event of a state takeover, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education could increase the school budget, if they determined more funds were needed. Dighton-Rehoboth schools have gone through the process.
In other business, Director of Student Services Lauren Mathisen provided a report on the department. DESE’s coordinated program review of special education, civil rights and English learner education programs resulted in recommendations for minor changes in the English learner program, she said.
Another DESE audit, of the 2009 Circuit Breaker claim has ranked W-H among the top 5 percent of special education, districts they have reviewed, she said. An independent transportation audit will be conducted in a couple of weeks, she said.
“Transportation continues to be a big financial burden for us,” Mathisen said. “We are projected to spend about $1.1 million this year in transportation of our students.”
She said $875,000 had been budgeted, but the tuition and salary contracted service lines in the budget should cover the remaining amount, Szymaniak said.
She did, however, express some optimism that the recently passed Student opportunity act, that some reimbursement for out-of-district transportation costs is on the horizon. A deficit is foreseen in contracted services due to medical or maternity leaves and a resignation that had to be contracted out.
Mathisen also shared her in-district program goals for special education, particularly in the form of an autism program at the high school as well as an elementary-based language program.