When the W-H Regional School Committee votes to set the fiscal 2017 assessments — as they were slated to do on Thursday, March 17 — there may be no budget cuts recommended.
The committee continued its conversation about funding the budget Wednesday, March 9 and, while no votes were taken that night, the mood of members was evident from discussion: cuts and large transfers from the $1,365,310 in excess and deficiency are not popular choices.
There is a $1.4 million shortfall in a level-services budget proposed for fiscal 2017, and committee members are concerned about the wisdom of using too much from that one-time money.
“We need it all,” said School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes of the Student Success plan. “I don’t think anybody on this committee wants to take anything out of that Student Success budget.”
No one disagreed with him.
“We need every single item,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner said. “It’s hard to say which piece you could cut and then the other piece doesn’t fall apart. Truth be told, we need more than $3 million.”
She noted the Student Success plan was the product of a lot of work by staff, leadership and parents.
“I’m not in favor of cutting a penny from the Student Success budget,” said committee member Fred Small, who had cautioned against tapping into excess and deficiency. “We need that and everything that’s in there. … What our needs are — those are our needs and those aren’t changing, no matter what the dollar amounts are.”
The district is allowed to put up to 5 percent of its operating budget into the excess and deficiency line to cover emergency expenses for which a regional district is responsible. It currently has 2.88 percent in the account.
Every year, transfers are made from excess and deficiency to help balance the budget, but officials said it is getting harder to replenish what is taken out. In fiscal 2016, $750,000 in excess and deficiency funds were used to fund the budget. Over the course of the school year $643,000 was replenished largely due to insurance and energy savings. A new budgeting software also limits over-budgeting.
School committee and district representatives have already met with finance committees in both towns where it was indicated a 3-perecent assessment increase was manageable, but probably not more, reported Hayes.
“They [Whitman] are not sure if it could be 4 or 5 percent, but they’re pretty sure they could handle 3,” he said. “At this particular point they don’t have any idea, either, because they’re [still crunching numbers].”
Hayes said Hanson painted a similar picture.
If $750,000 were transferred from excess and deficiency to return school librarians and help close the budget gap, there would still be a $1 million shortfall that would take a 5-percent assessment increase to close, Hayes said of the level-service budget. It would take an additional 15 percent to raise the additional $3 million involved in the Student Success plan.
“Both towns are saying it’s probably going to have to go to an override” to fund the Student Success proposal, according to Hayes. “Neither town has the amount of funding to fund it without going to an override.”
He also said the presence of concerned residents at the meeting with Whitman’s Finance Committee did not go unnoticed.
“They were thrilled to have some people come, because finance committees are often in meeting rooms where nobody shows up,” he said.
Whitman resident Shawn Kain again spoke in favor of the Student Success plan at the school committee.
“I think the override is just,” Kain said. “I think when we go to the people of the towns I think we can, in a very fair and honest way say, ‘It’s reasonable for us to support the override.’”
He argued that, with the one-time virtualization debt exclusion going off the books this year, the average Whitman taxpayer would see a net effect of $250 tax increase on a $300,000 house if an override passes.
“The challenge is we still have to balance the budget, which is why we are where we are today,” said Gilbert-Whitner.
Hanson resident Christopher Howard reminded the committee that there were more items of concern in the Student Success plan than just returning the library program.
In other business, the school committee congratulated high school faculty member Julie Giglia on receiving the Business Educator of the Year Award.
“This is a tremendous honor and we feel so pleased that it’s a W-H person who’s receiving this,” Gilbert-Whitner said.
Giglia outlined the “extensive” application process, noting the award wouldn’t be possible without support from her fellow business educators and school administrators.
She also gave a plug for the school’s inaugural Credit For Life Fair from 9 a.m. to noon, Friday, April 1. During the event, each senior is provided with a career and income scenario and must budget life expenses to balance out by the end of the session.
The committee was also updated on the progress of the district’s computer virtualization project.
Funded by town meetings last year, virtualization project is on pace for completion sometime in June.
Virtualization replaces the individual hard drives of classroom computers by linking the monitor, keyboard and mouse to remotely accessible server. It also extends the life of desktop units with the best performance possible.
“It doesn’t get tired, it doesn’t get bogged down,” said district IT Director Chad Peters. “Every time someone logs in, it creates a virtual desktop for them.”
The network infrastructure and software was replaced last summer, followed by the upgrade of existing classroom computers in late fall and trained the first two groups of teachers by this month. The remaining teachers will be trained as upgrades continue through May. Upgrades of old computers will continue into June.