The School Committee, faced with a daunting time window, voted Wednesday, June 8 to approve the 3.5-percent assessment increases passed by Whitman and Hanson town meetings within the levy limit.
They also reluctantly voted to transfer an additional $200,000 from excess and deficiency — before the assessment vote — in order to ensure class size issues were dealt with at Conley, Indian Head and perhaps Duval schools. Both were 8-0 votes, with members Robert O’Brien Jr., and Alexandra Taylor absent.
That means Whitman’s share will be $10,956,757 and Hanson’s is $7,715,066 of a level-service budget of $46,914,344 for fiscal 2017.
No one was happy with either decision, but Business Services Director Christine Suckow cautioned there were serious deadlines to consider.
“We discussed the time frame,” School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said. “If we don’t have a budget in place by June 30 it starts triggering other problems.”
Suckow explained that, if the district did not meet the June 30 deadline for an approved budget, school officials would have had to inform the Commissioner of Education of the situation. The district could then use 1/12 of the current budget each month until a new budget could be approved.
“Which would be fine for July and August, but come September when we have three payrolls … we won’t be able to make our payroll obligations,” she said. “If we do not have one by Dec. 30 of this year, then we’d go into receivership and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) will take over the budget, plain and simple.”
The September payroll period is most problematic without a budget because that is when the height of costs is felt, along with the start of the new school year. A limitation of 1/12 of what the towns would assess overdraws that first payroll.
Hayes said there were several options facing the committee on June 8 — lessen the amount of the Student Success Budget, accept the level-service budget or go somewhere in between, which would trigger another override anyway as neither town has the funds to exceed the level-service budget available now. He also suggested the E&D transfer, which would reduce the account to a “dangerous” level of $415,000 could help. The decision to vote the transfer was helped by Suckow’s cautious forecast that end-of-budget-year figures could allow officials to return it to more than $1 million through savings in health insurance, utilities after a mild winter, personnel movement and a $62,000 FEMA reimbursement from costs incurred during the winter of 2014-15, among other savings.
“I want everyone to be cognizant that is one-time money we’re spending to get us over a hump,” said committee member Fred Small. “That said, I think we’re in dire straits and an emergency situation.”
The situation left a bad taste in the mouths of committee members, and residents attending the meeting, alike.
A Woodbine Avenue resident of Hanson, who moved to town only two years ago and is expecting a child, is already planning to move because of the failed override.
“We knocked down a house and built a new house that was worth two-and-a-half times more than the old one — we’re the type of people you want in your town and in your district, but given the state of the schools … we don’t plan to stay in town,” said Amy Koskowski, who is an educator, as is her husband. “We don’t see the towns value education. … I think it’s important that you know that it’s a bigger issue. Within the region, people don’t want to come here.”
Whitman resident Marshall Ottina said he is still angry about the vote outcome.
“Plain and simple, our community is not properly investing in our children,” he said. “If the towns continually to refuse to bake a bigger pie, it’s time for the schools to demand a bigger piece.”
They received no argument from School Committee members.
“We’re giving the assumption that we can fix things and we’re back to where we were,” said member Stephen Bois.
“I’m hoping that the Student Success Budget stays somewhat intact for the next fiscal year so we can move it forward,” said committee member Robert Trotta. “After the election I heard it said ‘Well, the people spoke,’ but I don’t know what they spoke about.”
He questioned whether that meant there were too many taxes, that they don’t support public education, that they don’t trust the school committee or that they had no interest in the town past their house and property.
“Everybody knows my position, that public education should be supported by the town,” Trotta said.
Small echoed those sentiments but cautioned if the committee did not certify a budget, it would place the school district in jeopardy.
“If we can’t swallow everything all at once, we’ve got to just keep taking little bites of the apple to get to where we need to be,” Small said.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner reported that, on the state budget level, including the increase in per-pupil funding to $55 per student under Chapter 70 [an additional $140,000 for W-H] as well as increases to regional transportation, Circuit Breaker and, possibly, Charter School reimbursement would be a plus for the district budget.
“There is some revenue we can’t account for, for sure,” she said.
She said discussions with the school principals showed they are unanimous in seeing a need for using any available funds within the level-service budget should go to reducing elementary school class sizes and re-opening libraries.
Ottina suggested that cuts, if necessary, should occur at the high school until class size and library problems are resolved at the elementary level.
“One of the core values of our leadership team has always been what goes on inside the classroom,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “The understanding and consensus of that team was, if any additional funding should come into the district, the first priority would be to tackle the big class size issues that we have, particularly at the Conley School right now.”
While the move would only benefit one school, the leadership team recognizes that the problem is most immediate. She is also looking into the possibility of using partial staffing, as well as some “new ways of looking at how we do library services,” to help re-open the libraries if revenue allows it.
New Hanson member Christopher Howard was concerned that the state funding would not materialize to help ease the class size and library issues.
“Everything on the Student Success budget is important,” Howard said. “The leadership team’s at a point where they need to look at trying to prioritize.”
Committee members from both towns said they have spoken to their respective finance committees about building future budgets and Hayes indicated the entire school committee should attend those sessions.
“They need to see the 10 of us,” he said. “We never want to see public education become the haves and have-nots.”
Hayes and Gilbert-Whitner also advocate multiple public hearings on the school budget before it gets to Town Meeting to answer residents’ questions and concerns.