HANOVER — Vocational education costs for the eight communities making up the South Shore Regional Vocational Technical School District will increase by 3.1 percent, but that may not be reflected in local assessments when they are calculated early in 2019.
The School Committee heard Superintendent-Director Dr. Thomas J. Hickey’s presentation of the proposed fiscal 2020 budget on Wednesday, Dec. 19.
The proposed $13,816,872 budget represents an increase of $414,933 and a total assessment decrease of $10,216,what Hickey terms, in essence a “level-assessed budget” at the aggregate level.
“At the end of the day, the most important number is, ‘What is the assessment to my community?’” Hickey said. Such final figures await the governor’s budget figures released in January.
As of Oct. 1, there are 645 students, 581 within the district towns and 64 out of district. Whitman, with 145 students, and Hanson, with 76, are among the four biggest of the eight sending towns. Rockland tops the list at 159 students and Abington sends 94. All but Rockland, have seen a decrease in enrollment. Whitman’s was down by three and Hanson by four. Rockland gained five students and Abington declined by 21.
“What I’m happy to say is that, due to the projection that we have relative to non-resident tuition that we are collecting this year and a projection on regional transportation that we will get — 70 percent — the entire increase will be covered by outside revenue,” he said. Hickey is confident, based on last year’s regional transportation reimbursement that it will be the case.
“While those numbers still don’t provide any guarantee of what happens with each individual community, at least at that level, we’re able to strategize how to best deploy those available dollars,” he said
Hickey cautioned that assessments could increase a bit despite drops in enrollment.
“We’re going to say to each town, ‘this is your assessment,’ and it’s going to be based on the non-resident tuition we’re going to give back to them … and getting 70 percent [Chapter 70] reimbursement,” Hickey said Thursday, Dec. 20.
Whitman and Hanson could see increases in assessments but Hickey does not expect even those assessments to be wildly different.
SST creates zero-based budgets, beginning each fall with classroom supervisors and department heads building a budget from nothing. “Nobody feels that, if I got $50,000 this year, I just have to add a couple of percent and call it a day,” Hickey said. “We start at zero and the way it works is, if you need it, it will be there.”
If there is a “big ask” in the budget, Hickey said it is in a $720,000 request for capital projects including $60,000 for flooring abatement/replacement in the cafeteria and a renovation of the boys’ locker room in the 1962 wing; $230,000 to add to the stabilization fund; and $430,000 for fields upgrades.
“We have an influx of money — one-time increase of that tuition — better to couple it with one-time capital expenses rather than over-building operating expenses that you then have to maintain over time,” he said. There are also no requests for major vocational equipment in the fiscal 2020 budget.
The fields work would involve drainage improvements to the practice field and baseball field, which have both been in poor condition for awhile. Once the improvements are made, the new horticulture department will be key in maintaining them.
“We have deferred maintenance on exterior needs so as to prioritize the building,” he said. “But the timing is right for such a undertaking.”
There was a setback in planning for needed renovations and expansion plans, however.
While the school’s master facilities plan is underway, the district was again passed over for Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA) funding assistance and will be resubmitting a Statement of Interest for funds next year.
At its December board meeting, the MSBA approved only 13 of 56 projects proposed by 70 school districts across the state, Hickey announced.
“But in calling the MSBA … the feedback that I got was that the level of detail we have provided is more than sufficient,” he said. A walk-through done last summer by an MSBA group, while not a guarantee, could lead to a follow-up visit next summer and provide evidence of the information in the district’s past SOIs.
“We have to continue to ask,” Hickey said. The stabilization fund will be used to fund any feasibility studies involved in future invitations into the MSBA core program. “That was the initial reason for starting the stabilization fund several years ago.”
The stabilization fund has grown over that time to a level where it can be used, if necessary to fund larger maintenance issues that might crop up, but Hickey said he sees no reason to tap it now.
Personnel requests for the year are low, with only a part-time school resource officer, a JV golf coach and stipends for after-school music and art program advisers included.
The $11.78 million in projects on the Master Facilities Plan are not being addressed in the 2020 budget.
“Having a stabilization fund is very important, but under no circumstances do I see this as anything more than our local version of OPEB (other post-employment benefits),” Hickey said. “We’re attempting to make a good effort to fund for things in the long-run, that we’re going to need. … But for now, I don’t see any crisis and so we’re not going to ask for something we don’t need.”
The School Committee also heard an update on the new Horticulture and Landscape Construction program during a Staff Spotlight on the department’s new instructors Tom Hart, who helped start the program last year, and Cassi Johnson.
Both are graduates of Norfolk County Agricultural High School and the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMasss, Amherst. Hart was a landscape operations student at Norfolk, and earned a associate’s degree from the Stockbridge School and a bachelor’s degree through the university, taking jobs with commercial landscaping firms after graduation.
“We’re really excited about this new program,” Hart said. “Our ultimate goal for the future is to get these kids involved in small outdoor projects on the school grounds … getting involved in the industry and, essentially, growing the program to what we want it to be.”
Johnson focused on ornamental horticulture at Norfolk and earned an associate’s degree in horticulture from the Stockbridge School and a second associate’s degree in business from Massasoit Community College. She also worked with golf courses and interior landscapers and flower shops and was a manager in the floral department at Wegman’s, and earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Southern New Hampshire University when she decided to pursue a career in education.
“We definitely have a focus with landscape instruction, but we also get to touch upon things like greenhouse management — we have a greenhouse going up — and floral design,” Johnson said, noting the hope with the latter is to participate in a lot of community events. “We have a lot of ideas … and we’re just looking forward to building the shop and gaining more students.”