Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak has pledged that he will “look at district-wide administration … anything that will keep teachers in their positions,” first if budget cuts must be made, he told the School Committee at its Wednesday, Feb. 13 meeting.
There is little he can do about the 2-percent increase in special education costs, he cautioned.
“I’d like for this committee to hear from the towns before I tell my staff or we’re looking at cuts first because I think that Whitman and Hanson are spots,” he said.
Whitman town employee unions have been asked to consider wage freeze in light of that towns’ budget crisis, according to Szymaniak, who attended a department head meeting there on Monday, Feb. 11. District Business Manager Christine Suckow and Facilities Director Ernest Sandland also attended that meeting chaired by Town Administrator Frank Lynam.
“Frank has met with all of the union reps in Whitman except one, and I don’t know which union — he didn’t say which one he did not meet with — about taking a zero-percent [increase], or a wage freeze for two years,” Szymaniak. “I know he had a conversation with WHEA about that.”
Szymaniak said the meeting with teachers’ union representatives, which was criticized by Hanson School Committee member Michael Jones, was not arranged through his office.
“We voted for you for this position — you work for us,” Jones said. “What you say we need, that’s how we vote. Frank Lynam doesn’t tell you, us, anything [about] what we do. I just want to be clear on that.”
Jones asked if Lynam was meeting with district department heads and Szymaniak outlined that the Feb. 11 meeting was a town department head session but that Lynam had met with the teachers’ association without his knowledge.
Jones and School Committee member Dan Cullity agreed that was wrong.
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said the committee would be “wreckless” to discuss beginning cuts to the budget before they receive numbers from the towns, stressing that their job is to advocate for students. He said he didn’t think anyone in either town is hiding numbers at this point.
While he came into the meeting prepared to discuss a transfer from excess and deficiency to help trim the budget deficit, Hayes said at the conclusion of the meeting he would rather the committee wait until they see where they are at when town budget numbers come in. School Committee members agreed.
“It’s just something that is kind of out there with our teachers, we haven’t had a conversation at all about taking any type of wage freeze,” Szymaniak said of the wage freeze discussed at the Whitman department heads meeting. “We haven’t had a conversation about anything about our contract yet as we don’t have any numbers from either town. … I already have some teachers that are concerned.”
Another Whitman department head meeting was scheduled for 10 a.m., Tuesday, Feb. 19. Szymaniak said he would bring back any further information to the School Committee at its next meeting at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 27.
“This is a level-service budget to provide the services we have in place, and I think we’ve been very creative in restructuring some of our units to make sure we can provide services to our kids in a different way than we provided last year,” Szymaniak said.
He said that police and fire personnel work very hard at high-risk jobs, but teachers also face difficult situations managing classrooms of 25 children while responding to parent concerns and directives from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
Szymaniak also offered School Committee members a line item-by-line item look at increases and decreases from the current budget to the fiscal 2018, ’19 and ’20 as requested by the committee.
Overall, the budget’s facilities, insurance costs and salaries, are up 3.6 percent, with special education costs up 2 percent, Szymaniak said.
“The bottom line at the end, stays the same, but as far as percentages, if you look at it … if you look at those numbers last week, it’s close to $1 million,” he said.
Some of the increases are; paraprofessional and special education salaries, the latter to increase some staffing to bring the district back into state and federal compliance; substitute salaries for an increase in the numbers of substitutes; cost of living for clerical salaries; school psychologist salaries; charter school and school choice costs and legal costs.
“When we talk about social-emotional pieces, the [number of] students that are coming in who need more than the average classroom teacher is growing at a need that is out-pacing what a school can do and that’s not just here — that’s everywhere,” Szymaniak said of special education, including $884,000 in out-of-district placements, and psychological services costs. “That last option is out-of-district and when I’m looking at an $800,000 cost, know that out-of-district placement can go anywhere from between $50,000 to $363,000 depending on if it’s residential or not.”
He said the school district’s legal firm can challenge a DESE recommendation for out-of-district placement, but must be relatively certain of success, because the district can be liable for legal fees for both sides as well as the placement if it is overruled.
A change in curriculum coordination represents a shift of focus to the elementary schools.
“If we feel we have a good case and we go to hearing, [I’m] all for it, but that’s still an attorney fee,” Szymaniak said. “We want to make sure we do the right things for our students and our staff and also [legal representation] keeps us away from litigation.”
Some of the decreases are: instructional materials and general supply costs; superintendent salary; contracted services transferred to facilities costs; and salaries in district transportation after a restructuring.
“Our teachers are busting their butts with not a lot of supply,” Szymaniak said. “We were shocked coming into this office at what little we give our teachers to teach with.”
School Committee member Fred Small said the current budget situation is similar to that of four years ago when Whitman voters were presented with two budgets on which to vote — one reflecting an override and one without, which would have created the need for the committee to vote on a reassessment.
“Knowing at least on the Whitman side where they’re at … do you envision taking a pencil sharpener, seeing whatever you can do to this budget that you’ve presented and having level services or close to level services …
“This is level right now,” Szymaniak said. “What I’d like the committee to do is look at what we need for our schools, listen to both town administrators about numbers of what they’re looking at in their towns … I’m not trying to disrespect the town administrators, but nothing has been presented to this committee in terms of where they’re at. I’ve heard override. I haven’t heard a number on a specific override.”
Assistant Superintendent George Ferro said in the last 10 years the budget has always be presented knowing there would be cuts before the towns’ numbers were presented.
“This time we decided to come out of the gate and say where we’re at,” he said. “We need the guidance to see what we need to come up with so we can end up there.”
School Committee member Robert Trotta said that, with the Town Meetings on May 6, time is growing short for hearing budget structures from the towns.
“There doesn’t seem to be a plan,” he said, noting his priority is maintaining class sizes and extra-curricular activities. “It seems like we’re trying to hang on as best we can.”
Cullity argued the school budget is more a same-services plan than a level services one.
“We should be at a better point for our kids,” he said.
“We need to look [voters] in the eye and tell them what we need,” Small said.
Szymaniak said he and Suckow met with a Collins Center representative on the creation of a capital plan in Whitman, saying he plans to come back on Feb. 27 about a new Whitman Middle School “down the road.” He said the Collins Center representative had commented on the district’s recent habit of kicking capital issues down the road.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to do a statement of interest, it has to move forward, but we have more and more facilities issues at Whitman Middle and it’s something we’ve talked about, so I’m going to leave it to the committee to see where we’re at,” he said. “I do have growing concerns about the state of Whitman Middle School.