The School Committee has certified a fiscal 2019 budget at an 11 percent assessment increase to the towns — a $1,387,777 increase in Whitman and an $840,705 increase in Hanson over last year. Without that assessment, the school budget is in deficit by $2,228,482 after transferring $450,000 from excess and deficiency last week.
The fiscal 2019 a foundation budget of $50,706,972 is up 4.1 percent from fiscal 2018. The current fiscal 2018 budget is $48,688,029.
The 11 percent assessment increase would fund a level service-plus budget that adds two middle school special education teachers, an elementary-level family liaison, the first of a multi-year technology plan and adds curriculum materials for the elementary science program.
“At 11 percent, we’re not going backward, we’re going forward,” said Committee member Fred Small. “There are items that the leadership did recommend that are in the 11 percent. … It is moving forward.”
The 7-3 vote, with Chairman Bob Hayes joining members Steven Bois and Alexandra Taylor in opposition, came during a rare Tuesday session. The March 20 meeting was pushed up a day due to a pending fourth nor’easter this month.
A first vote, to seek a 13.65-percent increase to include free all-day kindergarten, failed to garner the two-thirds vote margin with only Bois, Taylor, Michael Jones and Robert Trotta voting in favor of that assessment level. That assessment would have meant a $1,654,229 increase in Whitman and a $1,111,115.09 increase in Hanson over last year.
All 10 members support full-day kindergarten as a vital addition to the W-H curriculum, but several members argued it was more responsible to bring the budget closer to the minimum local share sought by the state for its funding formulas. Several members favored placing an all-day kindergarten program as an override issue, but that can’t be done with a program that must be funded through the year-to-year operating budget.
“That’s what we do here at W-H, we’re ideas,” Bois said. “We’re moving forward, we’re innovative.”
“The only way to have full-day K is in the operating budget?” member Christopher Howard asked. “We’ve looked out there and there’s no other mechanism?”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner confirmed that, as salaries for the teachers involved in such a program are annual expenses, there is no other mechanism. She did add that, with recent budget increase, the district towns are much closer to target share.
“An increase of this magnitude could possibly put us at target share or very close, so down the road we could start to get the Chapter 70 [funds] we would need to get [to full-day kindergarten],” she said of the effort she has supported for 18 years. “The problem is revenue.”
She said the only way to obtain the funds outside of town budgets and state Chapter 70 funds is for state transportation and per-pupil costs, as well as the special education circuit-breaker to be fully funded.
“We get whacked on transportation,” she said. “We can meet with FinComs until we’re blue in the face and it’s not going to matter. … I do think we’re being ripped off on regional transportation and circuit-breaker, and the charges for Charter Schools are killing us.”
Small said he would “kick, scream and yell” for anything less than level services while taking small steps ahead.
“I don’t see what harm there is in asking for it,” Taylor said in view of the fact that the committee’s support of full-day kindergarten is well known.
“It’s our responsibility to do what’s best for our school district,” Trotta said in support of full-day kindergarten. “I think it’s about time we pushed ahead.”
“No one is against all-day K,” Howard said. “Everyone is for that. It’s just that what we have to do is build a sustainable budget.”
But member Kevin Lynam joined Dan Cullity, Robert O’Brien Jr., and Small in urging planning toward keeping the budget healthy year-to-year and keep kindergarten in mind for when the budget is healthier. O’Brien also said there is a critical need for social-emotional support for elementary students now.
“Last year we got 10 percent and we came back with an almost $2 million deficit,” Lynam said. “If you add just enough to close the gap and you add all-day K on top of it, next year is going to be another big deficit.”
Cullity was concerned that, if the committee shoots too high, the towns could counter with assessments lower than the 11 percent increase.
“There is absolutely no guarantee that you’re going to get 11,” Hayes said.
Duval Elementary School Principal Julie McKillop said full-day kindergarten is no longer a want, it is a need.
“We are dealing with haves and have-nots,” she said. “We are doing everything we can to catch these kids up, but no matter what, I can’t stand here and say half-day and full-day are exactly the same and they all get the same amount [of instruction]. They don’t.”
She also said full-day kindergarten improves property values.