There will be no Proposition 2½ override sought to fund the school budget this year, but town and school officials alike warn that voters will likely face one next May for the fiscal 2019 budget.
In fact, a committee will begin the work of making that case during a Monday, June 12 meeting.
School Committee members unanimously voted on Wednesday, April 12 for the 8.5-percent assessment increase both towns indicated can be funded for fiscal 2018 to provide level services to school children.
In dollars, the assessment would be $1,107,435 for Whitman and $479,670 in Hanson — including the shift in student population. The committee had voted an 11.5-percent assessment increase last month.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner said the district was able to put forth a level-service budget with an 8.5-percent increase only after some cost cutting including:
• Spreading payments for McGraw-Hill curriculum materials over two years to save $100,000 this year;
• Waiving the July 1 advisory date for teachers wishing to take early retirement this year — with retirements so far saving about $200,000;
• Moving some costs to revolving funds, including athletic coaches’ salaries for a $30,000 savings;
• Elimination of the position of assistant superintendent for teaching and learning and one teaching position, which was due to declining enrollment; and
• The likelihood of an increase in regional transportation reimbursement from the state. The independent food services department was also asked to contribute a greater amount toward its energy use in providing school meals.
Full-day kindergarten, estimated to cost about $400,000 was never included in the fiscal 2018 level-service budget. The appointment April 12 of Kyle Riley to replace departing Special Education Administrator Dr. John Quealy also has no effect on the budget.
“As superintendent, I’m very concerned about the success of an override, particularly after the fairly resounding defeat last year,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “We were able to make some reductions that would not require losing staff down to a 9-percent [assessment] increase. It would be a minimal loss of positions at 8.5 percent.”
The overall budget is up by about 4 percent due mainly to additional funds voted at the end of the last school year to address class size as well as library staff at the elementary and middle schools and increased insurance costs.
Whitman Town Administrator Frank Lynam said the problem for his town came down to simple math, beginning with last year’s levy limit of $23,125,376 plus 2 ½ percent ($578134) and $275,000 in new growth and personal property taxes. This year, $853,134 was added to available cash. The town began the budget process with $1.3 million in capital articles, many of which were requested by the schools. The requests by WHRSD this year increased by $1,441,007.
Lynam said the Finance Committee voted April 11 an assessment increase that brought Whitman’s share of the school budget to $12,064,000 — an 8.5-percent increase.
“We have virtually eliminated the capital articles from within the town because the money just isn’t there,” Lynam said, noting there are significant equipment needs such as a 19-year-old DPW truck and an unreliable sidewalk plow. “When I say to you we are at our limit — we are. We’re not only at it, we’re beyond it.”
Whitman voters are also being asked to support an override to fund three additional firefighters.
“We would have to do a heck of a lot of education and information” to make an override for the schools successful next year, Lynam said.
Lynam had asked the Whitman Board of Selectmen to meet at 10 a.m., Friday, April 14 in case an override vote was necessary to avoid the need to call for a June special election for a school override in Whitman. That meeting was cancelled after the School Committee voted to back an 8.5-percent assessment increase.
An override this year would, “waste a shot at presenting an override that is comprehensive,” Lynam said.
“I want to put together a comprehensive analysis that says ‘here’s why we need it, here’s how we’ll do it and here’s what it’s going to take,’” he said.
Hanson Selectmen Chairman James McGahan agreed there is a need to “let people know what is at stake here.”
“If we pass the budget we’re asking you to pass today, we’ll squeak through this year,” Lynam said. “Next year, if we don’t do something to increase our revenue, we many not even be in a position to offer a level-funded budget. Our growth is not going to change much.”
Whitman School Committee member Robert Trotta said he has heard that call before, but little had come of it in the past. Lynam agreed that has happened, but said the situation has now reached critical mass. Hanson School Committee member Robert O’Brien agreed, but said Lynam’s suggestion of a committee of school, town officials, finance committee members and selectmen makes sense.
“We had a lot of [state] help from 1992 to around 2007,” he said. “Now it’s reality — it’s not going up anymore.”
He said his seven grandchildren mean he has a vested interest in seeing to it that their generation have the educational opportunities other children have had.
Hanson Finance Committee Chairman Michael Dugan said information on the budget situation’s impact of graduation rates would help make the argument that more funds were needed. But school officials said that information may not be known for years.
“The problem is the wheels of the bus are falling off,” said School Committee member Fred Small. “They’re falling off for the kids that are in third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade — you’re not going to see the impact on graduation rates [until] six, seven, eight years from now.”
He said the schools don’t need what has been asked for — they need much more to do the job properly.
“We’re talking about replacing textbooks that have countries in them that don’t exist any more, that have planets in them that aren’t planets anymore,” Small said. “Basics. That’s what we’re talking about with this budget.”
Gilbert-Whitner said the district has depended on grants that are in danger of elimination under the Trump administration.