School budget concern voiced as the School Committee honored students for good works
As the School Committee honored students for good works in both the classroom and community Wednesday, Nov. 18 they expressed deep concern over the district’s ability to sustain such excellence in the face of dropping per-pupil expenditures within tight budgets.
With several dozen members of the teacher’s union — wearing matching black T-shirts — looking on, an update on the fiscal 2016 budgetary impact evolved into a discussion on the outlook for the 2017 budget.
“Nearly everyone in this room knows that we’re 10th from the bottom in per-pupil expenditure, and every year we have budget presentations in February and in March we certify the budget, and then we are always looking at how are we going to make ends meet,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner said.
Additional state funding or the hiring of young teachers, whose salary steps are lower than retirees, has then been depended on to make it work.
“This year we haven’t been able to,” she said.
The state is trying to wean the district from Chapter 70 funds, and the assessment increases from the two towns have thus far not been enough to make up for that reduction. A teachers’ contract is still under negotiation and three other contracts for student transportation, custodial services and Copy Center are all up for renewal, too. Charter Schools are also costing the district $300,000 a year, according to Gilbert-Whitner.
“As a result we have not been able to provide everything this year that we were able to provide last year,” she said. “I’m very concerned about that.”
One of the cuts was to library programs, which raised the ire of a retired teacher who volunteers in the Indian Head School’s library in Hanson.
“I’m not happy with the way the schools are going,” said Peggy Westfield of State Street in Hanson. “My kids are done, so I don’t have a vested interest in the schools right now, but I’m very concerned.”
She voiced concern over the fact that teachers are now working without a contract and that the district has sought mediation after only 84 minutes of discussion between teachers and the negotiating subcommittee. She suggested it might be time to work to rule as a demonstration of exactly what extra services teachers perform.
“I’m absolutely appalled at how little per-pupil expenditure is spent in these two towns,” Westfield said. “It’s absolutely disgusting. How do we change that?”
School Committee Chairman Robert Hayes said the committee has been trying to get that point across to voters for years, but few people come to meetings to offer opinions or ask questions. Both he and committee member Robert O’Brien Jr., said concerned residents must also attend selectmen and finance committee meetings and follow up by attending Town Meetings.
“For many years, people have said W-H cries wolf,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “I think it’s become very clear that, when you’re 10th from the bottom, you’re probably not crying wolf.”
She said that this year there is a real possibility of W-H sinking closer to fifth from the bottom.
“It costs a lot of money to run a school district, and where we are now is a concern,” Gilbert-Whitner said.
Committee member Fred Small agreed with Westfield that the budget should not be balanced on the backs of a teaching staff shrinking from repeated cuts and unfilled vacancies, but cautioned the district can’t write checks that can’t be covered.
“We have a big problem,” he said.
Hanson residents Michael Jones of Elm Street and John Barata of Meadow Lane also voiced frustration over the school budget.
Jones asked for an update on past discussions about forming a committee to work with the towns on a workable budget.
“We’ve not only lost library, we’ve lost a computer class,” he said. “Teachers at Indian Head have over 30 kids in their class. It’s ridiculous. What are we cutting next year?”
Gilbert-Whitner said conversations have begun on a cooperative effort.
“Truth be told, an enhanced budget involves an override,” she said.
Whitman Middle teacher Beth Stafford said she is concerned about what happens to school override funding the year after the override.
Barata reminded the meeting of financial arguments made when a new Hanson school was rejected.
“They said we have to take care of the people and the current schools we have,” he recalled. “Now’s the time to put those people’s feet to the fire, for them to pay that extra money they didn’t want to pay for the new school — which I totally understand — we need them to put that toward our teachers and, in turn, our kids.”
Hayes urged that new state Sen. Mike Brady, D-Brockton, and representatives Geoff Diehl, R-Whitman, and Josh Cutler, D-Duxbury, be asked to attend an upcoming meeting to discuss the state funding formula and hear people’s concerns — and follow up to hold them accountable on the issue.