Selectmen from both towns told School Committee members on Wednesday, Feb. 26 they are ready to move forward with budget work, but need a bottom line figure from the schools.
“We need a budget,” said Whitman Selectman Randy LaMattina, noting that the School Committee’s job is to support the schools, superintendent and school budget. “I need you, relatively soon … to let us have that next piece of how we are going to work it.”
He said it is very tough to say you are going to work toward something when you don’t know what you’re working toward.”
He asked for a consensus from the committee whether the required or recommended budget was preferred and support it.
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said he expects that the School Committee should be certifying a budget number to send to the towns regarding what assessments would be at a 7 p.m., meeting on Wednesday, March 4. The budget is posted on the W-H website.
School Committee members agreed they preferred taking a week to review the budget numbers before acting on them.
“The required piece is to keep us at status quo — level-serviced for 2021,” he said. “There are other items in that recommended piece that are up for discussion.”
Szymaniak said he is more than willing to meet with the Hanson Finance Committee in the meantime.
“I hate to say it, it feels like another year of treading water for us, that we can’t move ahead, that there is going to be budgetary constraints, and I don’t know that there’s a dollar amount that you can put on it,” said School Committee member Fred Small. “I can’t see us going backwards anymore.”
“This budget was prepared using a budget model over software, which allows us to look at budgets from previous years, said interim Business Manager John Tuffy. “It turns out that, over time, there have been some line items that have not been used anymore or consolidated in another line, but in order to keep the integrity of using that software … you’re going to get a budget where you see those blank lines.”
Whitman Finance Committee member Kathleen Ottina, speaking as a resident and grandmother, spoke to the School Committee about class sizes at Duval and in the one grade at Indian Head School in Hanson, where classes exceed 22 children.
“It had to happen this year, you really didn’t have any opportunity to think, ‘how else can we save money to come in under budget,’” she said. “But when you start these discussions, I would really urge you to take a look at the discrepancy between a class size of 19 for first and second graders in two schools and 24, 25, 26 at the Duval School. It’s really an inequity.”
She urged the committee to consider that the youngest students need much more one-on-one attention and should be a higher priority than other budget items.
School Committee member Dawn Byers, who also served on Whitman’s Budget Evaluation and Override Committee, noted that the latter panel had recommended a 5-percent assessment increase to Whitman for funding education. The required budget package carries a 4-percent assessment increase.
“Believe me, I’m sensitive to the statutory method and how it is affecting Hanson, as well, but I look to Whitman in a sense that, if we go with even that 4 percent number, what does FY ’22 look like?” Byers said. Using the statutory method in 2022 would mean a $1.3 million assessment to Whitman.
“It’s a big increase the following year,” she said. “So, what I’m asking is that you follow the recommendations of [consultant John] Madden …it translates to additional funding of about $228,000 in the Whitman Article 2 operating line item.”
Small said he realizes that Whitman has spent a lot of time studying what they could afford, adding that an increase for one town would mean in increase for the other.
“I’ve been thinking about this whole broad budget cycle discussion for awhile,” Hanson School Committee member Christopher Howard said. “I’m not sure I really feel we’re doing what we said we’d do in terms of moving education forward.”
He said some of the issues Hanson has with the assessment is that the current budget cycle is an example of what he sees becoming an ongoing budget problem.
“I don’t know how I can support a budget that has an over $1 million swing toward Hanson,” he said. “It’s a very big, big issue, especially when it’s in conflict with the agreement that we made.”
Assessments based on per-pupil distribution was how the district was formed, he noted, pointing to a recent visit by Christine Lynch of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“She was very clear, when she spoke to us on behalf of the state, that this body should absolutely understand the ramifications of that change to both towns before it made that decision,” Howard said.
Lynch had recommended a five-year phase-in of a change to mitigate the financial impact, he reminded the committee, especially as both towns are in tough financial shape.
“Just because the state gave us the opportunity to make the change, doesn’t mean we should take the change,” Howard said. “To me, it’s really about the partnership. Are we going to have a partnership or not?”
Hanson’s Board of Selectmen Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett stressed that officials in that town are working to keep the partnership going. Meetings between the two select boards and a request to place the regional agreement on the Feb. 26 School Committee agenda for appointment of a revision committee reflected that commitment, she argued.
“You haven’t heard from the FinCom, because we need a number,” she said, noting Whitman has been working on the impact to its budget since last summer. “We’re going to need a minute.”
She also cautioned about risking a state takeover of the school district.
“I assure you, although people have tried to say that isn’t the Bogeyman, and we don’t need to be worried about it, that’s not what our attorney is telling us, it’s not what Selectmen I have spoken to in Dighton and Rehoboth are telling me,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “They’re telling me that home values have deteriorated, that new families will hesitate to move to town, because they get a very strong signal that the schools aren’t being supported and I don’t want to be responsible for that.”
She said her mission is to take a position of leadership in the hope that calmer heads will prevail.
“It’s going to take a minute,” she said, adding that this year level-funding is about the best that could be expected form Hanson, based on what is discussed at selectmen’s meetings and from residents’ comments. “They really don’t even want an override.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett said any partnership between the school district and the towns will require a sensitivity to what each is going through. If the end goal is to truly move educational programs forward, she advised that the School Committee not try to do it all in one year.
“It’s actually going to boomerang and you are actually going to have people digging in and saying, ‘They won’t get a dime more from us for years to come,’” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
She stressed that the informal meetings between select board members and town administrators shows her “sometimes something positive comes out of something negative.”
“I don’t remember the two towns working together, strategically in advance of the budget,” she said.
Byers stressed that the statutory assessment formula was implemented in 2007, but that there is a perception it is something new being forced on the district. She said another problem lies in a lack of textbooks. There are classroom sets, but not enough for children to take them home for study.
Hanson pays 42 percent of its municipal budget on education, according to DESE. Whitman spends 46 percent, Abington 48 percent, Halifax 59 percent and Mansfield 53 percent.
“Even in my own household, budgeting comes down to priorities,” she said.
Howard argued that the very reason the district was formed has its basis in the economics of that regional agreement.
“This is not Whitman’s fault,” School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said. “This was a state thing.”
School Committee member Dan Cullity of Whitman said nothing gets done because of need changes in the regional agreement. Without Whitman’s balking on a different clause, pertaining to the deregionalization process, the assessment formula would have been set in stone.
“The towns have to realize that to provide for their school system, they’re going to have to do an override,” he said.
Howard said using a forced override, means the district loses support from the towns.
“We’ve got to bring them here and show them the value of education,” Howard said, agreeing with Cullity. “We’re going to literally have to go and show people what they are going to get for those dollars.”
Hanson School Committee member Rob O’Brien, responding to Cullity’s mention of the recent successful Whitman override for new equipment showed that technique works.
“They went to the resident and said here’s what we need,” said O’Brien, who is not running again. “That’s why they got the extra firefighters — they proved why they needed it.”
The issue with the schools, he said, was that overrides have been sought to provide level services, rather than to get ahead.
Whitman School Committee member Christopher Scrivens said he is encouraged that the two towns are meeting and talking.