11.5 percent hike in assessments
The School Committee voted unanimously on Wednesday, March 8 to seek an 11.5-percent increase in the assessments to Whitman and Hanson to fund a $2.1 million shortfall in the proposed fiscal 2018 budget. The committee was slated to meet at 7 p.m., Wednesday, March15 to certify the level-service budget.
Whitman’s assessment would be increased by $1,278,693 and Hanson’s would go up by $868,567. School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes reminded members that, once an assessment is set, it could not be set at a higher rate March 15.
A 3-percent increase would have totaled $1.4 million for Whitman and about $640,000 for Hanson, with every subsequent 1 percent increase adding $186,718.
Whitman Town Administrator Frank Lynam pointed out Thursday, March 9, that the shift in student population actually puts Whitman’s share at $1,441,007. The cost of the shift is $162,314 automatically added to Whitman’s assessment and subtracted from Hanson.
“I understand why the School Committee voted the assessment they voted, and I have no idea how we’re going to come up with the money,” he said.
Hanson Town Administrator Michael McCue also said his town’s budget could not afford an 11.5-percent assessment increase.
“We cannot fund that amount even if we did nothing at all on the municipal side,” McCue said. “I still wouldn’t have enough money in anticipated revenue growth.” McCue said Monday that Hanson had proposed a 6-percent increase in the town’s assessment as reasonable.
The total operating budget increase is close to 4 percent. The complete school district budget can be viewed online at whrsd.org.
According to District Business Services Director Christine Suckow, decisions to raise insurance rates made by the Mayflower Municipal Health Group steering committee on March 7, has again widened the budget gap by just over $245,000, offset slightly by an extra $18,000 from interest-bearing accounts — to $2,154,779. It started out as a $2.8 million gap before the insurance increases, which would have brought the gap to $2.9 million.
The School Committee had closed the budget gap to $1.9 million on Feb. 15, with a vote to transfer $750,000 from its excess and deficiency account.
School Committee member Fred Small asked Suckow last week about the likelihood of any more financial surprises on the horizon, but she did not see any others looming.
“We don’t know that,” Hayes said.
If the governor’s budget proposal to return per-pupils state aid increases to $20 — back down from the $55 increase the district’s legislators had succeeded in obtaining last year — it would add another $137,000 to the deficit, Hayes said.
“I can’t see us going backwards,” Small said in making the motion for the 11.5-percent increase. “I don’t know what it’s going to take … I can’t see us — in good conscience, at least for myself — not voting for at least a level-service [budget].”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner noted that the latest numbers from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) show the W-H School District has slipped from 11th from the bottom in per-pupil spending to seventh from the bottom. The average per-pupil spending in the state is more than $15,000 a level that would translate to a $60 million budget for W-H. [See chart]
Frank Lynam suggested Thursday that a large school district such as W-H could be expected to spend less per pupil, as an economy of scale.
“We can’t go back,” said School Committee member Dan Cullity. “We fought too hard for what we got last year. We can’t go backwards and start losing everything again.”
“But we did go backwards last year,” said School Committee member Kevin Lynam. “I think you have to judge this on results in how close you get in moving the number forward. … If you assess where there’s no chance, absent a tax increase, you’re going to run the risk that you don’t get it at all.”
He suggested the committee consider where the money comes from, advocating that non-mandated busing be reconsidered on the Whitman side in order to save about $400,000 in order to consider an override next year. Busing changes are a decision towns must make.
“It eventually gets to the point where it doesn’t make any sense to spend money on buses that are taking kids to schools that don’t teach anything,” he argued.
School Committee member Robert Trotta, meanwhile, said the committee should refuse to retreat on any vote for an 11.5-percent increase.
“It seems like we always come up with a number, and then we listen to the town side — and I understand their dilemma — and we acquiesce,” Trotta said. “I don’t think we can acquiesce this time.”
“It’s high time the towns fund the schools for what we need,” agreed Committee member Alexandra Taylor, noting the state will not be increasing Chapter 70 funds.
Small, however, said he was cognizant of the fact that the towns have a limit to their levy capability under Proposition 2 1/2 and limits to their tax base and commercial growth.
“It’s up to our communities at the same time to decide to come out and support this budget,” Small said. “To be honest with you, I’m ashamed that I’m talking about 11.5 percent. … there’s so much that we don’t have that it’s sickening and it’s wrong.”
Hayes said if the 11.5-percent increase doesn’t come this year, the gap will be bigger next year.
“Let the people of the towns decide what type of school district they want to have,” Hayes said. “I don’t see any other choice.” He said even closing Maquan next year, if that decision is made, will only help close the gap in that year’s budget.
Town administrators argue that town budgets have nowhere left to cut in order to direct more funds to schools without being forced to eliminate services.
“I have no way to cut $1 million,” Frank Lynam said, noting that the only area the town has left in which cuts can be made is in salaries. Many Whitman departments have not increased their expense line in 10 years, he said.
“I can’t cut [Administrative Assistant] Laurie [O’Brien] by 6 percent,” he said. “I can cut her salary by 6 percent, and I will do that the day the teachers agree to take a 6-percent cut in salary.”
McCue also said town department budgets are close to the bone.
“My understanding is several years ago they cut the Highway Department significantly and they’re still at those levels,” he said, noting police and fire budgets are also close to minimum acceptable levels.
“I’m in the middle of negotiations with our unions,” McCue also said. “The other unions look at what is happening on the school side and I need to be fair to our people, and I will be fair to my people. The money is what the money is.”
But some residents advocated March 8 that other departments should feel some of the financial pain they see going on at the schools.
“We’re all here to stand behind you and educate people in town and spread the word,” said Leila Donovan of Whitman at the School committee meeting. “Nobody wants to get into an us-vs-them situation, but for other departments in town, they are getting a higher percentage than the state average.”
Frank Lynam argues the situation calls for a concerted effort.
“We all have to find a way to make it make sense, because there isn’t enough revenue to fund these increases and there is no plan that we can set that will raise our revenue to that point,” he said.
Others at the March 8 School Committee meeting outlined what the current situation means on the classroom level.
Whitman Middle School Principal George Ferro said even an 11.5-percent assessment increase would maintain a cap of between 50 and 60 students able to study Spanish, the one foreign language the district now offers. Most South Shore middle schools also offer French, Latin and Chinese, he said. Related arts classes at WMS would remain at 34 to 36 students per class.
“What you’re talking about is just to get where we are today and today is difficult,” he said.
Hanson resident Jim Hickey, a candidate for the Board of Selectmen, said the W-H schools have enabled his children to go on to become, among them: a civil engineer, a sound designer and a research scientist.
“Hanson is worried about Hanson 200, which is in 2020,” he said. “I’m not the smartest person in the room — I could be the dumbest — but to me, education is the most important. I think, as a committee, whether the town accepts it or not you have to vote for 11.5 percent.”
Chris George of Whitman said it is a shame that either town would look to celebrate anything that deals with town pride while failing to adequately fund the schools.
“We should be ashamed of where we are,” he said. A Rockland native who used to look up to W-H schools, he said he now feels he made a mistake in moving to Whitman.
“We need to keep academic teachers in the classroom at any cost,” he said, suggesting sports and other programs should be cut first.
Looking closer at Maquan options
In view of recent forecasts for continued declining enrollment, the district’s options regarding Maquan School’s future were discussed during the Wednesday, March 8 School Committee meeting, but delayed a vote on the proposal until the meeting scheduled for 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 15.
It has been estimated that such a move could save between $800,000 and $1 million by closing the Hanson elementary school, which could not be done before fall 2018.
“First of all, we have concerns about the budget gap, so doing something right away could be very helpful with the budget gap,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner. “As we began to look at what it would really take to shut a building down … it appeared that if you were going to do cost savings, you would need to do it over a period of time, or your up-front to do it quickly could almost offset the savings.”
Any decision to close the school would affect the town and district’s decision on whether to continue seeking a statement of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for further repairs or replacement of Maquan.
“These are decisions that are going to have to be made, if not this week, then sometime before statement of interest time,” Gilbert-Whitner said.
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said a slower pace could also help Hanson town officials develop a plan for the Maquan building.
“If we give the town enough notice, they may be able to get a desirable tenant,” he said. “They may be able to come up with a great use for the building and it may be some savings because this boarding up or closing down or draining boilers might not even have to happen if the town gets a little bit involved.”
Members of the School Committee met with Hanson Selectmen on Feb. 28 to discuss the budget picture, and the Maquan issue was part of that discussion.
“I would look at the town of Hanson as our partner,” agreed School Committee member Fred Small.
Gilbert-Whitner’s biggest concern is the lack of space to do it right now. The forecast decrease in enrollment at Indian Head will also not be fully felt until the 130 fifth-grade students move to grade six at the end of this school year. Only 96 students make that transition the following year.
The enrollment decrease will then be seen from kindergarten to grades three or four, with projections for continued low enrollment beyond that and is consistent with other towns in the area as well as state and nationwide due to a dip in the birthrate.
“It would be very disruptive to Maquan to rush this,” said Committee member Christopher Howard, who has children at Maquan and knows teachers there. “It’s a lot of changes in a very short period of time.”
Savings would be realized in projected repair needs should Maquan be closed, however. There is currently $5 million in repairs on the capital matrix for Maquan School, according to Gilbert-Whitner. The $5 million would come off the matrix, and repairs would be “much more incidental,” in the period during which the school would be taken offline if the decision is made to close it, she said. There would also be cost savings if duplication of staffing is not needed, Gilbert-Whitner said, noting that is another area where more time would be helpful.
“You really need time to let people know these sort of things could be happening, and also could they be assigned somewhere else in the district and just what that may be,” she said. The regulations governing ages of students placed in the same building, as well as van transportation routing, are also a concern to be considered regarding special education students.
Pluses and minuses
With one less school, there could be savings in custodial contract and utilities costs as well, according to District Business Services Director Christine Suckow, who also cautioned there would be some costs involved in the process should the school be closed.
Classrooms to be used for kindergarten pupils would require the installation of bathrooms at Indian Head School if the children are moved there — a job that cannot be done in-house, according to Facilities Director Ernest Sandland. He said the work could also take some time.
A more in-depth study is required before pre-school classes can be moved, as well.
“Our thinking about this — and it’s still very preliminary — is that there would probably be savings that would happen along the way as you begin to start to take the building offline,” Gilbert-Whitner said.
Whitman’s recent experience with return of the Park Avenue School is not equivalent as that building was used mainly for storage at the time and Maquan is an active school.
Sandland said plumbing for boilers and sinks at Park Avenue had to be fully drained and the exterior had to be securely boarded up.
“It wasn’t overnight that it happened,” he said.