After a lengthy debate on Wednesday, April 10, the W-H School Committee voted 7-1 to support a 12.5 percent assessment increase to the towns.
School Committee members Alexandra Taylor, who was absent, and Michael Jones, who had to leave the meeting early, were not present for the vote and Fred Small, who had supported the 6.5 percent increase Whitman officials have indicated the town could afford, voted against the new assessment. The School Committee meets next at 7 p.m., Wednesday, April 24.
“The 6.5 is based on what they can give in jockeying different lines and different things,” Small said.
School Committee member Robert Trotta had proposed a 10-percent assessment to begin discussion, before the committee ultimately opted on the 12.5 percent, which, in tandem with a transfer from excess and deficiency, avoids more cuts to the school budget.
A transfer of $561,237 from the $961,237 in excess and deficiency brought the assessment down from 15.1 percent to 12.5 percent. Small also advocated using $5,000 from the School Committee travel account, keeping only enough to maintain memberships. It could also help the budget.
School Committee member Steve Bois also made a motion to seek 12.5 percent from the towns after the excess and deficiency transfer closed the gap to that point.
At 12.5 percent, Whitman would see an assessment of $1,658,773 — a total of $14,928,958 — and Hanson’s would go to $1,114,168 — a total of $10,027,508.
The 12.5 percent assessment saves about nine teaching positions.
The level-service budget now stands at $53,270,534 after an initial cut of $290,000 from legal costs, supplies “everything that doesn’t live or breathe.”
E&D, as it is called, is depended on to deal with unanticipated costs such as a new special education student in the district. Individual education plans, ranging from extra time on tests to residential placements, have increased in cost by more than 50 percent over the past five years.
Special education is also among the $5 million in unfunded state educational mandates impacting the budget.
“Students learn differently, students are being emotionally challenged differently … we’re seeing more and more students not being able to cope because of anxiety, because of stress — and that’s starting in kindergarten and preschool now,” Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said.
Special education and related accounts, such as transportation and legal costs, are among increasing unanticipated costs, school officials said. Even with the cuts that would have to be made if the towns provide only 6.5 percent assessments, Szymaniak said new programs would have to be developed to keep more special education children in district to reduce costs long-term.
Special education costs have jumped from $2.5 million in the 2016-17 school year to $4 million this school year for out-of-district placements.
He said Hanson officials had informed him that their town could support a 7.5-percent assessment.
He repeated his breakdown of program and staff cuts that he had provided Whitman Selectmen on April 9.
The 6.5 percent assessment would mean the loss of three non-union employees, middle school foreign language, six paraprofessionals, three duty aides, the part-time elementary music teacher, a guidance staff member and 19 teachers — with 4 percent meaning a math curriculum and 23 teachers in addition to the other cuts. Special education costs have run over by $630,000 this year. There are 82 staff members paid through federal grants.
Reduction in force (RIF) notices were sent out on Thursday, April 11 to teachers and staff in line for layoffs in the event cuts are made.
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes explained once again how assessments are made based on what school officials say they need in a budget, cautioning that the original 15.1 percent assessment to the towns was not a 15.1 percent increase in the overall budget.
“[Taxpayers] are getting a Cadillac for a Yugo right now,” Szymaniak said referring to the Yugoslavian-made economy car that became the butt of jokes shortly after its introduction to the American market from 1985 to 1992. “This is the best bang for your buck around.”
Finance Committee member Rosemary Connolly had made a similar argument during the April 9 Selectmen’s meeting.
“This 6.5 percent increase, even though there will be layoffs, maintains a curriculum that we’re committed to give our teachers,” Szymaniak said. “It also maintains social-emotional learning and support for our students.”
School Committee members said they were also concerned about the effect of additional budget cuts on class size and the potential of any more state funding.
“I’m happy to play ball and I’m happy to be in agreement [with the towns], but we still need a little bit more,” Bois said. “There’s still work to do here.”
Small, meanwhile, said the committee also has to be cognizant of what the towns are able to give.
“Were they prepared? No. Should things have gone differently? Probably. But if we have to, I’d be all for taking E&D money to try and supplement different things and really preparing for the fall and having a proper override presentation showing the need for everyone to reset,” Small said. “And we’d take control of that ourselves.”
Szymaniak also spoke about the budget impact of the 3.1 percent increase in the overall South Shore Tech budget approved by both towns.
“If we were to get a 3.1 percent increase to our budget, that would be an 8.5-percent assessment to both towns,” he said. “I’m just asking both towns to treat us as equals.”
The assessments SST is seeking comes to 3.12-percent increase to the towns — $48,000 for Whitman —but still must be approved by the two town meetings. W-H’s overall budget increase is 5.6 percent.
Szymaniak also noted the difference in per-pupil expenditures for both school districts — W-H now spends $12,740 per pupil while SST spends $21,142 per pupil.
“There are less kids so there is less cost [at SST],” Szymaniak said.
With special education costs factored in, W-H spends $13,385 per pupil, while SST has no out-of-district special education expenses. Thirty percent of SST students, however, are on IEPs. Equipment costs and other factors. Safety factors dictate that we have some limited student teacher ratios in some shops, which also contributes to higher per pupil costs, according to SST Superintendent-Director Dr. Thomas J. Hickey.
“That’s the only school I wish to compare us with because we are sending students over there,” Szymaniak said. “I don’t see and apples and apples situation, I see an apples and oranges-type situation and I think South Shore Tech is a very good institution for our students if that’s their choice. I just want equal footing as far as finances for the teachers we employ as a district and for the students that decide to stay here.”
Small described his vision of an override as not just one that solves immediate problems, but returns the school services to a level where it should be.
“If we are going to go for an override, we should give the voter the opportunity to fund us to the level where we should be, and that’s a whole helluva lot more than we’re talking about tonight,” he said.
In other business, the committee approved submitting a letter to the Commissioner of Education requesting a waiver of the 185-day requirement to the school year for Conley School following the norovirus-related closure of the school for one day last month.
Assistant Superintendent George Ferro explained that requiring Conley students to make up the day at the end of the school year could cost the district $2,800 in busing costs and that the time on learning could be made up in other ways.
Ferro said the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) said the number of days in school was the key measurement.
“The hours do not count,” he said of the DESE’s regulations. “It’s the showing up on the 185th day.”
“The content of an education is not in the length of days or the minutes you spend,” said Bois in making the motion for the assessment. “That is very valuable time, but I’ve seen kids that have continuity from a group of people that deserve millions of applause … for the everyday work that they do.”
O’Brien pointed out that the decision would be counter to the reasoning behind a recent vote to reject a 2019-20 school calendar which included extra days in the Christmas vacation.
“Everybody brought up time in the classroom,” he said of that vote. “You’ve got to learn, got to learn, got to learn. I’m OK with applying for it, no problem at all, but we seemed to have done a 180 here. … I’m just making a point.”
Ferro said waivers have been granted to districts in the past.