When the W-H Regional School Committee convenes a special budget meeting at 7 p.m., Monday, April 23, it will be decision time on the assessment increase to the towns.
In the meantime, the committee voted at the Wednesday, April 11 meeting to seek legal representation, on a contingency or pro bono basis, to determine if the panel could or should sue the state for the past 10 years of underfunded regional transportation reimbursements that the state requires, but does not fully fund. They are also seeking other area regional school districts to join in such a lawsuit.
“We need to do something, we need to try something,” School Committee member Fred Small, said in support of his motion, arguing the funds owed could be as high as $400,000 per year. “To do nothing is not an option.”
The April 23 meeting was scheduled to permit more time for more focused discussion before a vote, as well as additional talks with town officials in the interim, without delaying a School Committee vote on a final assessment too close to the Monday, May 7 town meetings.
The percentage can remain the same or be reduced, but cannot be increased as the budget has already been certified. Every percent cut from the budget cuts three positions.
An 11-percent increase was voted when the committee certified the fiscal 2019 budget on March 20 — a $1,387,777 increase in Whitman and an $840,705 increase in Hanson over last year. Without that assessment, the school budget is in deficit by $2,228,482 after transferring $450,000 from excess and deficiency. After conferring with the town administrators and finance committee members last week, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner said the increase could come down to 9.5 percent with a cut of one position at the Conley School — where there had been an enrollment bubble that has moved through the grade levels — and if proposals for adding a special ed science instructor at each middle school as well as an elementary-level social worker parent liaison were scrapped from the budget. The Conley position cut lowers the budget by $90,000 and the other moves could save about another $300,000.
Hanson Town Administrator Michael McCue said his town could potentially handle a 7-percent increase, while Whitman Town Administrator Frank Lynam said a 5-percent increase is as far as his town could afford to go.
“I want to express my appreciation to Ruth and her team for the conversations we’ve had over the last couple of weeks,” McCue said in urging the committee to seriously consider Gilbert-Whitner’s recommendations. “Both towns are obviously, and unfortunately this seems to be the case every year, struggling in terms of meeting the assessment that the School Committee has voted.”
Excluding the enterprise fund that exclusively finances sewer and water projects, Whitman’s budget is $31 million.
“I have 5 [percent]. I know where I can get the extra money,” he said. “If we went to 7, then I would have to do some other things, but I could still get the money. If we go to 9 or 10, we’re changing the way we do business in the town because that’s the only way I can make it work.”
“We do not want to eviscerate the schools but we also do not want to eviscerate our towns,” McCue said. “The town of Hanson cannot support an 11-percent increase without some draconian cuts that I don’t think anyone in either town wishes to see.”
It would take an increase of $370 to the median single-family household in Whitman to meet the 11 percent assessment increase, Lynam said.
“Frankly, I’m concerned about the viability of our communities,” he said. He said that, as bedroom communities, the only thing Whitman and Hanson have to offer prospective homebuyers is the quality of life, a significant part of which is the quality of town social structures, especially the schools.
Lynam said that while he personally would be willing to pay an added $440 on his home as a result of an override, he does not think enough others in town would support it for an override to pass.
He also expressed concern with towns’ ability to sustain an average 4-percent budget growth from the school district with no help from the state.
Small asked if a 7-percent commitment could be made if an override was needed for the rest. Lynam said he would have to explain to his residents why an override would be necessary and it would have to be one to fund all town operations, including schools.
McCue also stressed that the towns are committed to educating the children in their communities, but must also be able to fund some requests of other departments as well.
“We find ourselves faced with a very significant challenge in one of the most difficult budget deficits in recent history,” Whitman Finance Committee Chairman Richard Anderson said. “The reality is that the town cannot financially support the budget that was presented by the district earlier this year.”
He added that the Whitman Finance Committee has not yet voted any recommendations for the town budget, but at its April 10 meeting “it was generally accepted” that a 5-percent assessment ($623,402) increase could be recommended — but even that amount “represents a significant challenge” for the town, he said.
Lynam said even that percentage would be “absolutely devastating” to Whitman as it represents 76 percent of this year’s new growth.
“As Yogi would say, ‘[It’s] déjà vu all over again,’” Lynam said. “It’s easy to say we’re going to do better next year. I think we’ve been saying that for 15 years — and then the act of governing happens, the act of education happens … and we start doing all the things we have to do to make our world function and the budget sits back there a little bit.”
He said Whitman has contributed an average of 83 percent of town growth to the school budget, which he said sounds great.
“The problem is, our growth is a terrible number,” Lynam said, noting it averages between $250,000 to $300,000. “Neither Whitman nor Hanson has industry. Neither Whitman nor Hanson has an opportunity for rapid and strong growth.”
A “phenomenal” jump in growth last year, which saved Whitman’s budget according to Lynam, was from National Grid, which came under the personal property category and is not sustainable, Lynam said. That $92 million figure has already amortized over two years by almost $30 million and will be gone in three or four years and while, the tax revenue it generated still exists, it has shifted from commercial to residential property.
School Committee member Dan Cullity said Whitman’s decision to fund the new police station within the levy limit about the same time state Chapter 70 funds began to decrease in 2007 created a “perfect storm” of budget problems.
“With that happening, the schools began getting rid of things left and right,” he said, suggesting the towns had not provided sufficient financial backing, to which Lynam took exception.
The total impact of budget increased in all other departments is 2.1 percent, while the schools increase was 4.2 percent.
“I don’t have an office that’s overstaffed,” he said. “When I make cuts in personnel costs I may be closing offices.”
School Committee member Kevin Lynam suggested Cullity’s question was more a political than management one.
“Only the voters can go and vote for a tax increase,” he said. “Short of that, you’re talking about reallocating the money, changing the pie chart. … Maybe that should be on the table.”
School Committee member Robert O’Brien Jr., prompted Small’s idea for a lawsuit when he asked how much the district loses each year to unfunded or underfunded mandates from the state. He pointed to communities pushing back against plans to bring towns under OSHA oversight.
“Towns have to push back because it happens in the public safety sector all the time,” said O’Brien, who is Hanson’s deputy fire chief. “You want [us] to do something? OK, but the state’s got to fund it.”
School Committee member Robert Trotta pointed to teacher strikes and protest marches in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona as evidence that educators are finding support in their demands for adequate state funding.
While not opposed to taking legal action, School Committee member Christopher Howard urged the amending of the motion to see if other regional districts might join in the effort.
“Going it alone may be a challenge, but I do think its time to come up with something,” he said. “We talk about the same thing over and over, year after year.”
Small’s only concern would be the potential for receiving a watered-down settlement and said he would start making calls the next day.
Gilbert-Whitner said the other option would be seeking legislation that permits regional districts to charge for transportation.