The W-H Regional School Committee has unanimously voted to transfer $750,000 from the excess and deficiency fund and to set a 20.15-percent increase to the towns’ assessments in support of a Student Success budget for fiscal 2017.
Assessments are apportioned based on student enrollment.
The 9-0 votes — member Steven Bois was absent — on Wednesday, March 16, came after a lengthy discussion on educational needs and financial challenges facing the regional school district.
“To recap where we are, we have a $1.4 million deficit for a level-service budget,” said School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes. “We also have a Student Success budget, which is a $3 million budget.”
With the assessment increase accompanying the Student Success budget, the total fiscal 2017 operating budget sought will be $49,714,324.
He stressed that the school committee could not put forth a Proposition 2 1/2 override, as that is a decision for the towns to make.
For Whitman voters, an override would mean an additional $1.24 per $1,000 in valuation [$336 per year on the average home value of $270,940 to $558 on homes valued at $450,000], in Hanson, it would mean an additional $1.13 per $1,000 in valuation [$331 per year on the average home value of $293,500 to $509 on homes valued at $450,000].
A level-service budget means librarians, computer teachers, language classes and other programs and positions previously cut would not be returned. It does add some special education services mandated by law. School committee members estimated that a level-service budget would require at least a 3.5-percent to 5-percent assessment increase.
“Basically, it means we stand still,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner. “We do not move forward, but we don’t move back. Lately, we’ve been moving back. … We cannot move back — we can’t even stand still. We’ve got to move forward.”
The “three pillars” of the Student Success budget — healthy bodies/healthy minds, a cohesive pre-kindergarten to grade 12 system and safe/secure schools — include budgeting $500,000 toward reducing elementary class size, $400,000 to implement free all-day kindergarten, $320,000 to restore the library program, $240,000 to replace the grant funding the elementary science curriculum, $140,000 for two social workers, $70,000 for middle school foreign language programs and about $170,000 for music and art, among other line items.
“This wasn’t a pie-in-the-sky figure, it wasn’t a wish list,” Hayes said. “It was a well-thought-out list of what we need.”
The full list, as well as other budget information, is available online at whrsd.org. Hayes also said residents of both towns with budget concerns or questions may call him on his cell phone at 617-538-0189.
“Unanswered questions become problematic,” he said.
Whitman Finance Committee member Michael Minchello — a former school committee member — rose to correct an incorrect statement made at the March 9 meeting about the tax impact of any override in Whitman.
A resident had said that, with the one-time computer virtualization debt exclusion going off the books this year, the average Whitman taxpayer would see a net reduction of $158 in taxes on a $250,000 house if an override passes.
“That’s how it was voted,” Minchello said. “Then we got some unexpected money from National Grid [being used for capital projects], and they ended up funding what would have been the override with National Grid money. So, our taxes didn’t increase, they actually decreased by I think a penny per $1,000.”
A few residents spoke at the meeting, supporting the Student Success budget before the vote, which received a standing ovation.
“We should reach for the stars,” said retired teacher Margaret Westfield of Hanson.
“The key is in the support,” Hayes said.
“There’s an ethical obligation to support education and to support the community,” agreed school committee member Fred Small.
“Support is definitely important, but I also think research is key,” said Whitman resident Shawn Kain. He noted average tax bills in both Whitman and Hanson are below average while median incomes are above average and cited economic statistics supporting increased investment in education.
Pre-kindergarten returns $3 for every $1 a community invests, Kain said quoting economic surveys pointing to a lower dropout rate and less need for remediation. Property values also benefit by $20 for every $1 invested, he argued. Adequate educational and support programs, such as social workers [see related story] increase the odds of equal opportunity for economic success as adults, Kain concluded.
“I think everyone’s basically on the same page and I feel energized,” Hayes said. “It’s the beginning of moving forward again if we get this voted in the positive. … This is not the end of this, this is the beginning.”