The School Committee voted unanimously on Wednesday, March 15 to certify a $48.9 million budget for fiscal 2018. The budget is 4 percent higher than fiscal 2017, and assessments for the towns have been certified at a 11.5 percent increase.
It started out with a $2.8 million gap before the insurance increases, which would have brought the gap to $2.9 million.
The School Committee had closed the budget gap to $1.9 million on Feb. 15, with a vote to transfer $750,000 from its excess and deficiency account. A decision to share utilities costs with the self-funded Food Services Department outside the operating budget also brought in $50,000 and interest-bearing accounts also yielded $13,000 before the insurance rate hike voted by the Mayflower Municipal Health Group steering committee on March 7 added just over $245,000 to the deficit, according to District Business Services Director Christine Suckow.
The gap now stands at $2.1 million with increases largely in contractual obligations, state retirement assessments, insurance rates, transportation costs and other contracts.
The reduction of state per-pupil reimbursement to $20 in the governor’s budget also cut $135,000, according to School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner said the level-service budget also includes the elimination of the position of Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning.
Whitman Finance Committee Chairman Michael Minchello said at that meeting that it appeared any assessment increase over 4 percent would be tight. Hanson has said they can support a 6.5-percent increase.
“Right now, I don’t know where that would come from,” he said.
“Respectfully, then, get creative,” said School Committee member Alexandra Taylor of Whitman. “We need it. This is not, we would like it. … This is just for level-service.”
She argued that, “For years, every other department in town has been getting funded for what they need” while the school district has not.
Whitman Town Administrator Frank Lynam, meanwhile, addressed Taylor’s comments as well as the “elephant in the room.”
According to Lynam, Whitman has only added one half-time employee in 10 years. Also, unlike the school department, towns can’t increase revenue by assessing someone else. Town revenue comes only from taxes and fees or state funding.
“The biggest single problem the towns are facing right now is the school budget is not sustainable,” Lynam said. “When you’re talking about a 4-percent increase in your budget, it’s all coming from the towns.”
He said the increase being requested would mean eliminating departments — including some library and senior services — if it were taken out of town budgets, and drastically cutting police and fire budgets. Lynam said he is not certain what number Whitman can support toward the schools, but that the town will do whatever it can.
“I think it’s time that people consider very seriously what kind of community they want to be, and how much they’re willing to support that,” he said. “The support is only going to come from the community.”
A handful of parents read from prepared statements in support of the budget and urged residents to join their Whitman-Hanson Supporters of Schools Facebook page and to follow through by voting for school funding.
“At seventh from the bottom of over 320 school districts in the state, this administration can’t do any more to make up for the fact that we simply do not spend enough locally on our schools,” said Hanson resident Lisa Ryan of Birchbark Drive.
“I want to be taxed, I want to help the town … not just the schools, but the whole community,” said a Whitman resident who moved to town for the quality schools.
“Up until last year … I believed all children in the same school received the same education,” said Dawn Byers of Russell Road in Whitman, whose daughter is one of only 30 percent of Whitman Middle School to qualify for Spanish class because budget constraints limit enrollment to those with high enough grades and test scores. “This year, 287 seventh- and eight-grade students at Whitman Middle School do not have the same foreign language opportunity that my daughter has. … This is a clear example of the consequences of low funding.”
A level-service budget will not chage that, said Byers, who said all middle school students should have the opportunity to study a foreign language.
“We own this,” she said. “Collectively as a community, taxpayers bear the responsibility for not adequately funding our schools with local tax dollars.”
School Committee member Dan Cullity also noted the state expects the two towns to make more progress toward meeting the target share of budget contributions over the minimum they now fund.
In other business, a quartet of second-grade students from Marie Sheehan’s class at Duval Elementary School in Whitman joined Sheehan and Science Curriculum Coordinator Mark Stephansky to outline what they are learning in the Know Atom science curriculum and how $45,000 for consumable classroom materials included in the operating budget are used. Know Atom, with curriculum and professional development start-up costs funded by grants of more than $300,000 from the Gelfand Foundation was started at the second-grade level in district schools. It now extends through grade five.
“This year we’ve tried to bring our students to the School Committee so that you can have a first-hand look at what our students do,” Gilbert-Whitner said in introducing the presentation. “As we make decisions about our schools, it’s always important that we remain student-centered.”
The children, giving their first names — Adam, Neve, Gabrielle and Brendan — read their reports as Stephansky held up examples of their classroom projects on habitat as well as flower and owl pellet dissection.
“You’re supporting us — you are voting to support all of the programs that these kids need — we thought you’d like to see it first-hand,” Duval Principal Julie McKillop said.
“This is a student-centered curriculum,” Sheehan said.
“They are learning engineering and science practices which are part of our new standards in Massachusetts and they are loving it along the way,” Stephansky said.