Taking a ‘serious look’ at costs
Falling revenues and increasing costs may force some drastic changes in the Whitman-Hanson Regional School District, School Committee members, residents and officials from both towns have been warned.
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said the panel will have to “take a serious look” at how the district operates and may have to consider eliminating high school athletics, closing the Maquan School and consolidating those students into Hanson’s Indian Head School, staff layoffs and double sessions to save money.
“All of those things are on the table,” Hayes said. “This is not ‘we keep coming to you and crying wolf,’ this is serious. Every year it gets worse and worse and worse.”
Hayes said the district is just beginning of the process as a proposed level-service budget for fiscal 2018, that is $2.7 million in the red, was rolled out at the Wednesday, Feb. 1 School Committee meeting. That hole is due to a $1.8 million increase in expenses and a revenue shortfall of more than $800,000. That is a combined revenue decrease of 1.5 percent.
W-H’s per-pupil expenditure of $11,703 is 11th from the bottom of spending among all districts in the state and both towns remain below target share, a figure that the state has looked to since 2011 as it determines Chapter 70 aid levels. W-H now receives 63 percent of its funding from state aid. The state average for per-pupil spending is $14,935
Declining enrollment in both towns can also have an impact of state aid levels, according to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner.
She said the budget includes a level-service proposal of $48,937,127. The increase in the budget’s bottom line — not to be confused with operating assessments to towns — is $1,857,987 or 3.95 percent.
Gilbert-Whitner said the FY 2018 budget needs to provide the 21st century education students deserve, rather than the education of the 1950s or ’60s, in very challenging fiscal times. Critical thinking, communication and technology skills are part of that.
“We have to come up with an assessment,” Hayes said. “Obviously, some of this [deficit] may get erased with new state funding. It may get worse. We’re going to have to take some serious looks at some serious issues.”
Business Services Director Christine Suckow said assessments based on a level-funded formula, because of enrollment shifts, would see Hanson’s assessment go down $162,000 and Whitman go up by the same amount.
Last year, the committee voted to transfer almost $950,000 out of excess and deficiency, an account intended for emergency expenses not for balancing the budget, Hayes noted. That account has been replenished to $1,246,484 due to end-of-year savings in utilities, insurance and special education.
“When you keep hitting E&D — and we’ve been doing that for several years — it’s a very, very dangerous, slippery slope that you can go down,” he cautioned. “You just pray for the rest of the year that nothing happens.”
State representatives Josh Cutler, D-Hanson, and Geoff Diehl, R-Whitman, and Rick Branca, an aide to state Sen. Mike Brady, D-Brockton, attended to give an overview of state budget implications for the W-H budget. [See related story]
District health insurance costs continue to strain the budget, Gilbert-Whitner said.
The district again provided cost estimates for universal all-day kindergarten — at an estimated $400,000. That possibility is among the strategic action plans involving three pillars: healthy bodies/healthy minds; a cohesive PreK-12 curriculum and safe and secure schools; approved by the committee in September.
One-to-one devices such as ChromeBooks and iPads were also part of that discussion.
The action plans were points of discussion proposed for the Feb. 15 School Committee meeting, and have not been totaled into the fiscal 2018 budget.
Parents are now charged $3,200 a year per student for all-day kindergarten, which 82.1 percent of Massachusetts school districts provide at no cost. W-H’s half-day program is free.
There is also a request in the action plan for $300,000 over three years — $100,000 per year — for more classroom sets of one-to-one devices throughout the school system.
Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Patrick Dillon argued the devices could be used to continue educating students in another school’s gym if a school building had to be temporarily closed. They can also be valuable as standardized testing becomes more digital, he said.
“I only have three ChromeBook carts in the building for 1,200 students — all through fundraising through the Panther Education Trust,” WHRHS Principal Jeffrey Szymaniak added.
School Committee member Fred Small suggested funding the devices through a capital request to help them survive budget cuts.
Non-mandated busing — transportation provided within 1.5 miles of a school and not required by law — is not reimbursed. W-H has about 1,000 non-mandated riders and 2,000 mandated, according to Suckow.
More than $1 million could be saved by eliminating busing from the budget completely, Suckow said in response to a question from Hayes. The district must provide transportation for homeless students who must stay in out-of-district shelters, however, under the federal McKinney-Vento Act adopted by the state of Massachusetts. The state under-funds that program, school officials said.
Going to all-day kindergarten would pare about $64,000 from the transportation costs by eliminating a mid-day bus run, Gilbert-Whitner said. She also pointed out that hospitalizations of students for anxiety-related illnesses are still rising and social workers provided at the elementary schools are funded by a grant that runs out June 30.
The high school program for at-risk students is supported by a grant that is also starting to go away.
A licensed social worker, who is also the parent of a Conley School student, said she was concerned to see high school sports coaches receiving a $63,000 raise while social workers in the schools are a greater need. The budget only adds about $6,000 for social workers.
Another parent argued social workers lower special education out-of-district costs.
“If you look at kids today, they’re facing a lot different challenges that we just never thought of when we were growing up,” Small agreed. “We’ve got fourth- and fifth-graders cutting themselves. … I know if I hadn’t heard [of] it, and seen it, I’d be oblivious to it.”
The district received $1.6 million in grants for the 2016-17 school year, not including a $20,000 grant recently received for safe and supportive schools. Grants fund nearly 85 positions in the district.
The elementary grades science curriculum is completely funded by a foundation, with the district responsible for consumable supporting materials.
Added state funding from local legislators’ efforts, which increased per-pupil funding to $55 each in state aid last year, allowed the district to hire four library assistants in the elementary schools. The district posted a job opening for a librarian to oversee them, but have not been able to find a qualified candidate. Retired high school librarian Kathy Gabriel has returned under a stipend to provide professional development for the four library assistants, Gilbert-Whitner said.
In the district-wide budget, the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning position has been cut in view of increased responsibilities for the director of curriculum positions.
Director of Science Curriculum Mark Stephansky argued for more up-to-date teaching materials for state standards that require more hands-on learning, and noted that the current eighth-grade textbook, copyrighted in 2000, has a picture of a space shuttle on the cover. NASA ended that program in 2011.
“That predates three standards,” he said, adding that now only half the curriculum is from a textbook. The other half is online. He advocates a curriculum materials upgrade that includes seven years of online access.
One parent asked that the school committee retain the $200,000 in the district budget so the new textbooks do not get cut.
“Knowing that my son laughs that Pluto is still mentioned [as a planet] in one of his science books, it’s really a concern,” she said. “We will not be able to have our students achieve at higher levels unless we have current information in front of them.”
Legislators offer state insight
State representatives Josh Cutler, D-Hanson, and Geoff Diehl, R-Whitman, along with Rick Branca, an aide to state Sen. Mike Brady, D-Brockton, attended the Wednesday, Feb.1 School Committee meeting to provide an overview of state budget implications for the W-H budget.
Diehl outlined Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget as it pertained to the district school budget.
Added state funding from local legislators’ efforts, which increased per-pupil funding to $55 each in state aid last year, allowed the district to hire four library assistants in the elementary schools. They are looking to new legislation as a more permanent solution to the funding need.
“We’d like to replicate that this year, but don’t hold your breath,” Diehl said, noting that this year, Gov. Baker is back to asking for $20. “I think you’ll see the House increase that number and, usually, the Senate tends to have an increase beyond that. The horse-trading has really yet to start.”
Cutler explained that where last year’s success in increasing the per-pupil funding had support from 71 co-sponsors, that is the only way regional schools can obtain Chapter 70 increases.
“I want to credit you for kind of lighting the fire,” Cutler said. “We would have done our jobs anyway, but we understood what a challenging situation it was and we took that message out and spread it through the legislature.”
This year they are going to try to replicate it, but Cutler said they know they don’t want to have to try doing so every year.
That’s were a small language change proposed in the language of MGL Chapter 70 Section 2, would require a $50 per pupil minimum. The temporary House Docket No. is 3156 until the legislation is assigned a permanent bill number in about two weeks.
“It’s not a crazy idea, because it used to be that way,” Cutler said. “Obviously when times are good, we’d like to see that figure go even higher, but at least we’d have that minimum brought up from where it was before.”
Cutler said a good cross-section of South Shore legislators have already signed onto the bill.
Branca said Brady would work on behalf of the bill on the Senate side.
Diehl added that casinos, approved in 2011 and the recreational marijuana law, both passed with the intention of adding funds to the education budget, would not provide assistance for a few more years. The marijuana law won’t even be in effect until 2018.
He explained the hold was placed by the Legislature to adjust tax regulations and address public safety concerns about enforcement, using Colorado as a model.
“I wouldn’t expect them to be a potential revenue savior for awhile, if at all,” Diehl said.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner also expressed concern about transportation costs under chapter 71. Non-mandated busing — transportation provided within 1.5 miles of a school and not required by law — is not reimbursed.
The allocation was already down by $110,000 in the governor’s budget, she said. Subject to appropriation, the reimbursement is supposed to be 100 percent.
“We haven’t seen that since 2007,” she said. “If we did not have to transport students, we would then be able to charge — whether people would like that or not, I don’t know.”
She said it is not unusual at the high school to see, at the second half of the school year, the buses are not full as students earn drivers’ licenses or stay for sports.
“A lot of money goes out for bus transportation for buses that are not full,” Gilbert-Whitner said.
Cutler said, while he can’t predict dollars, the House bill will be better. Diehl also cautioned there are also pending 9C cuts.