The School Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 27 supported a suggestion by Whitman Town Administrator Frank Lynam that they conduct talks with school union representatives, similar to talks he is having with town unions, as Whitman works to negotiate a two-year wage freeze.
It is part of Whitman officials’ efforts to find a sustainable solution to a $3.5 million school budget shortfall. The School Committee was slated to meet with union representatives in executive sesstion Tuesday night.
A $2.5 million override and a debt exclusion for the remainder of the debt on the Whitman Police Station are also being considered by the town.
The committee also asked Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak and Assistant Superintendent George Ferro to provide them with a better idea how the $200,000, representing each assessment percentage, would effect the schools if there were cuts.
The school budget must be certified by March 13.
“We have a dire situation here,” School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said. “We may have to hold Town Meeting. Is there any chance of that happening?”
Lynam said in order to kick the can down the road in that way, there has to be somewhere to reach for the funds and it isn’t there.
“Yes, Town Meeting can be delayed, but that only puts the region in a more difficult situation,” he said. “If we don’t act until June, and we go to a vote, we’re now into July before we know what the answers are and you’re now on a 1/12 budget.”
He said he intends to see a question on the May ballot, which has to be posted 45 days before.
“So we’re going to have to make some decisions in a couple of weeks,” Lynam said.
A wage freeze could save Whitman about $800,000 in school salaries, according to Szymaniak, who noted Whitman department head meetings have begun discussing the three proposed financial moves.
School Committee members voted to have the entire committee, not just the bargaining subcommittee, meet in executive session March 6 with School District bargaining units about the issue.
“That was discussed at both department head meetings [held recently in Whitman],” Szymaniak said of wage freezes. “Nothing was finalized there. We still don’t have numbers if those things don’t come to fruition, so I can’t give the committee what that impact would be. If that impact is a zero for our budget that impact would be not good.”
Teacher Jill Kain said she would support a wage freeze, as she and other teachers have in the past, but said they need some indication that they are supported in return.
“We’re willing to give up what we need to to help,” she said of her family. “We have done it and I think there’s a huge portion that would do it again. … As the budget gets tighter, our support and our classrooms and our services get less. … If you ask the staff and they say no, I wouldn’t say it’s because they don’t want to help, I would say it’s more like they feel like we’re giving all we can and everyday we’re asked to give more with less.”
She felt that other town unions might say the same thing for the same reason.
WHEA representative Kevin Kavka asked about the schedule and format of Lynam’s meeting with the other unions. Lynam said the March 4 meeting would be his first with the collective group and that he intended to work collaboratively with them.
“I had [previously] gone to them and said, ‘this is a thought,’” he said.
Lynam said Whitman’s Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee have met — and he planned to meet with his FinCom again March 5 for the sole purpose of a line-by-line review of the budget. He also planned to meet with Hanson Town Administrator Michael McCue and Accountant Todd Hassett March 5, and had a tentative plan to meet with representatives from Whitman’s collective bargaining agreements on March 4.
“The key to all this is what we see for numbers,” Lynam said. “What happens if we do get an override, what happens if we don’t. There hasn’t been enough urgency in working those numbers.”
The biggest part of the process, Lynam said, was the ability to reach a sustainable budget.
“Sustainability means living within our ability to generate revenue,” Lynam said. “Right now we generate, in new dollars, $975,000. … It’s far short.”
He questions whether voters will support an override unless the town can present a clear picture that such a move will address the town’s financial problems for several years.
Both a capital plan and budget that are now in development will help make that case he said. The capital plan can’t be viewed as a five-year plan, however, because the town does not have the revenue predictability to support that.
“Here we are, I think 65 days from Town Meeting and we’re crunching numbers,” Lynam said.
Hayes asked Lynam if he anticipated having numbers before the committee meets again on March 13.
Lynam said he would have suggested numbers — representing budgets with and without an override — by that meeting.
“Without an override, the numbers are going to have minuses in front of them — for almost everybody,” he said.
School Committee member Robert Trotta asked if there was any indication about the town’s financial situation made evident before the district began the latest round of union negotiations last year.
“When the Town Meeting voted its budget last May, it was made very clear that we were appropriating money from a non-recurring source to fund the cost for debt payments in order to balance the budget and that, in order to move forward the following year we were going to have to increase the levy,” Lynam said.
The $1.2 million that is the bottom line of this budget and was $1.2 million more than we had to spend, Lynam said. The $975,000 in new revenue for this year is $225,000 short to start, plus a $2.5 million increase.
Trotta said those figures were not in his mind when negotiations began and asked if a meeting prior to contract negotiations could have been arranged to obtain that information.
“A thought for me would be if you had come to us and said we are going to negotiate, what are your concerns, you would have had that answer,” Lynam replied.
Salaries, however, make up only 39 percent of the budget increase this year.
“Conversely, 61 percent is being driven by things that either aren’t controlled or are uncontrollable,” Lynam said. “We’re in the same boat. … It’s a community problem.”
Fixed costs have been as great a budgeting concern as unfunded mandates for school officials, but there has been a bit of good news on that front. Szymaniak noted health insurance costs for next year — forecast to increase by 5 percent — could go up by as little as 1.5 percent, for a $150,000 savings, which would help the school budget’s bottom line. It will be voted by the insurance collaborative on March 11. But out-of-district special education placements, which looked to be decreased by $200,000 could end up being a wash because of transportation costs, Szymaniak said, noting that negotiations are continuing on that front.
“I’m asking the committee at this point to stay true,” he said. “We don’t have real numbers to say [what assessment percent will be offered]. I know they still have that zero ace.”
School Committee member Fred Small said a $3.6 million budget increase is unprecedented.
“I think it’s the perfect storm of a lot of things at the same time,” he said.
The committee’s request to see an indication of how each $200,000 in potential assessment cutbacks, raised a concern over taking an à la carte approach to the school budget.
Small said identifying where the district could work with a reduced budget would be “a good thing,” especially since excess and deficiency funds have been so tight with the adoption of a more exacting budgeting software.
“Finding money is getting harder and harder every year,” said Committee member Dan Cullity.
“If we get numbers and have to cut an assessment … we will look at programs and service and the last thing we want is to cut people,” Szymaniak said. “But I need to know if it’s $3.5 million or $2.5 million.”
But if the number is $2.5 million, $1 million would be in special education costs that could be reduced if the district could afford to maintain programs that keep students in-district and reduce costs overall.
“Anything lower than level-service will cut staff,” he said.
Committee member Christopher Howard said he was not interested in anything less than a level-service budget, but added that if voters don’t support it he would have to make “some hard decisions about where I am on the committee, in the community, where my kids go to school.” He said the community needs to understand the consequences of such decisions.
“Rest assured, that this committee and anybody whose watching will have a clear view of what things would look like depending on what the moneys that are available are,” Ferro said.
Cullity asked if the cuts meant services or people?
“It will be across the board K-12,” Szymaniak said.
Hayes suggested showing what each percentage would cut, raising the question of à la carte menus of potiential cuts.
“When we make and a’ la carte menu, that is a difficult way to educate children,” Ferro said noting he and Szymaniak were the ones qualified to make those decisions. “You’re going to get 10 phone calls from 10 people who don’t want that at that level, but want that at that level.”
Hayes said he wanted to demonstrate to the public the difficulty of the decisions they face. WHRHS Principal Dr. Christopher Jones expressed concern about how the committee wanted Szymaniak and Ferro to demonstrate the impact of budget cuts.
“One of the reasons I decided to apply for the principalship here … is because of the educational vision of Mr. Szymaniak and Mr. Ferro and the reputation they have for moving education forward the way it needs to be,” Jones said. “Once you open a budget up to à la carte choices, as staunch as people want to be, people do have their own agendas and pick from different things and there’s a very real threat … even when it addresses the vision and addresses the priorities of the educational leaders, quite often it gets carved out from the vision of the educational leaders and gets eroded.”