It took two tries, but the School Committee — meeting via Zoom conference call on Wednesday, April 1 — set the fiscal 2021 budget at $55,040,238 — the amount for the required budget to maintain level services without returning the four teachers cut from last year’s budget.
The budget number can still be changed but not the assessment method.
“We need to set a budget,” said School Committee member Fred Small in making the motion. “I cannot see any way, shape or form, or in any world, how we would set a budget that would be cutting anything that’s required. If our administration tells us that is the bare bones of what they need … then I think that’s what we need to support and that’s what we need to send to the towns.”
Whitman committee member Dawn Byers said she felt it was important to return the four teachers in order to reduce class sizes in elementary grades. She noted that the Whitman Finance Committee, meeting met Tuesday, March 31 and has a placeholder through which they are able to afford the assessment which incudes the four additional teachers.
Byers sought to amend the budget total to $55,320,238 — including the four teachers — but there was no second to her motion. The original $55,040,238 was voted down 5-4 [Hanson members Christopher Howard, Michael Jones and Robert O’Brien Jr. and Byers voted no]. Whitman’s Alexandria Taylor was not able to call into the meeting in time for the first vote. Two-thirds of all committee members, whether all are present or not are required to approve budgets.
The reconsideration was approved 7-3, with Taylor and Byers joining the affirmative votes.
Small then moved to have the original vote reconsidered. Reconsideration votes are permitted so long as they are moved by one of the yes voters on the same night as the original vote, School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes explained.
Committee member Christopher Scriven of Whitman suggested they “kick it to the no’s” to determine what it would take to pass a budget.
Howard said he was trying to make sure education is put first, but that if a budget is “slammed through” without working out an assessment compromise, it will fail. In Hanson, an override would be necessary for even a level-service budget.
Howard asked Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak to give the committee an idea what cuts would look like and that the 1/12 budget — which looks like a certainty for many districts across the state [see story opposite] — presents an opportunity to bring the towns together to work it our now.
Scriven said the ball really is in the towns’ court.
“If I vote no on this required budget, then that means I’m going to be voting at some point on a budget that’s less than what’s required, and I don’t want to do that right now,” he said.
O’Brien said he agreed with the $55,040,238 but cautioned that Hanson is not going to agree to an override, especially now that some people are finding their jobs and incomes threatened by the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Even before everything went on in the world, it was going to be a hard pill to swallow to get Hanson residents to vote an override — where, now, I don’t think they’re going to,” O’Brien said.
“At no point are we saying what you are presenting us is not correct, and we are not looking for you to make any cuts, or I am not,” Jones said to Szymaniak. “We just want to be able to sell to the town of Hanson, something that they’re going to vote yes on.”
Cullity reminded the committee a 1/12 budget would mean 48 staff cuts to Whitman-Hanson schools, mostly teachers.
“It’s up to the towns to figure out whether they are going to support the school system or not,” Cullity said, arguing for setting a budget. “I understand you’re looking for a compromise, a compromise isn’t going to happen.”
He said an override is almost certain.
Cullity said, without a budget figure to work with, the towns will not be able to reach a compromise.
O’Brien suggested changing the assessment method back to the alternative formula, based on pupil population, that night. Hayes said that was not possible.
Szymaniak said, traditionally, the committee passes a budget and the towns determine what they can afford.
Hayes said he voted yes because, while the assessment method can’t be changed right now, the committee can change the budget’s number right up to the date of town meeting votes. The state is also reviewing the statutory formula.
“I would implore everyone to find it in your hearts to be able to send a budget,” Small said. “The agreement, or whatever the two towns do, that’s separate from whatever we’re sending for a budget.”
He argued that he could not see decimating the school system.
“It was bad enough, what happened last year,” Small said. “I’m begging everyone. Please.”
Byers maintained that the four teachers are needed now, more than ever.
“Students are having a loss of learning right now, and it’s unacceptable to have class sizes of those sizes — especially in first and second grade, those early learners, learning to read,” she said.
Small said he was basing his motion on the budget administrators presented as what was absolutely required.
“I have to side on the fact that they’re the experts,” he said, characterizing this as an absolute need budget year. “I feel very strongly about class size and people doing the best we can for the kids.”
Byers reminded the committee that the four teachers had been included in the fiscal 2020 budget as necessary, but were cut anyway.
“What we’re doing today is horrible, and the position we put our great teachers in, having to teach behind the eight-ball, is not right,” Small agreed. “It’s not fair, but it’s life, and that’s what we have to deal with.”
He reminded the committee that one town can afford things, but the other town is struggling.
Byers replied that, while she respects the superintendent and the decisions made in the budget preparation, she reminded the panel that it sets district policy and she feels an obligation to students and teachers who will return in the fall after losing four months of learning.
“I want it all, if we’re talking what we really need … but I’m trying to be realistic, too,” Szymaniak said. “I just need a budget, because my teachers are anxious. We’re all anxious right now, that we’ve been talking about a number for three months … and the first vote of this committee was a no budget.”
He said that, based on the first vote, he and Assistant Superintendent George Ferro “are cutting right now” and were looking for a budget number to come out of the meeting to direct that work.
“Let’s set a budget,” Cullity said.
Howard said the intent of the budget process is to give the towns the ability to plan for what is coming from the school districts.
“I do think we’ve had sufficient discussions with the towns in terms of providing them with the numbers so they understand what needs to be done,” Howard said. “I think the larger issue right now is there is so much fluidity, as to what’s going on, I’m not sure the towns — even with the numbers we provided them — have a good understanding of what their revenues are going to look like and even what some of their expenses are going to look like.”
With people facing job loss before being asked to absorb a “massive [budget] swing” in Hanson and to vote on an override, Howard said he does not think the current budget is one the committee should be looking at before having some sense of what a compromise between the towns would look like.
Cullity said he understood Howard’s concern but that the committee’s jurisdiction is to provide a budget to the towns.
“They have to have figures to work with,” he said. “We don’t have to push an assessment on them now.”
“I think if there was a compromise, they would have come forward already, and shared any information they had,” said School Byers. “I haven’t heard that. Right now, we owe it to the teachers, who are working their tails off, and to the students, who are doing their best to participate.”
She said nothing short of level services — which, she added, isn’t enough — was acceptable.
Szymaniak was charged with meeting with town administrators John Stanbrook of Hanson and Whitman’s Frank Lynam between School Committee meetings, but Stanbrook was ill so the meeting did not occur.