Unfunded and underfunded state education mandates cost the W-H Regional School District more than $5 million a year, based on the most recent complete report from fiscal 2018. There were $8,131,147 in mandated costs during FY 2018, but only $2,110,957 of anticipated reimbursements were received [See page 5].
“We have an $8 million state mandate that no other department in the town has with $5 million of it not being funded,” said School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes. “That is a giant piece of the budget that other departments don’t have. … The point I’m making is that, when departments start getting pitted against each other, and I hate to use that term, we provide a different service was the answer that I told the Finance Committee members, than other departments. It’s very difficult to compare.”
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak offered a breakdown of those costs during a budget discussion at the Wednesday, Jan. 16 School Committee meeting.
Town administrators, select board and Finance Committee members from both towns attended the meeting.
Szymaniak said he has appreciated the opportunity to have talks with the Whitman Finance Committee and the town administrators to fill them in on where the district is at financially, he is not yet able to offer budget projections until the official budget roll-out on Wednesday, Feb. 6.
Whitman’s Finance Committee, for example, has been seeking impact statements from town departments based on 3- or 6-percent budget cuts.
“I can’t do what police, fire — everybody else [has done] — and put a number on it,” Szymaniak said. “We have great teachers right now and I would be remiss and I would not be doing my job if were to say I’m starting to cut the budget in January before I present it to you folks.”
Szymaniak said his job is to present a budget that will “adequately move the district as slimly forward as we can. … So I’m telling you this, a deficit or a level-fund will impact us severely.”
The district is looking at a $2.9 million increase in costs — with $3.7 million in deficits that are unfunded across the board if the budget were level-funded, according to Szymaniak.
“The impact would be in service delivery,” he said. “It’s people — I’m not going to put a dollar number or put a number on folks — it’s programs. It’s everything that we’ve done the right way over the past five years.”
Szymaniak said he fully understands Whitman’s financial position and is willing to work with them, but sees the potential for “devastating” cuts if the schools are looking at a $3.7 million deficit.
“We have not yet fully recovered from [cuts made in 2008 through 2010]. If we went back to Square Zero, you look at a 10-year process to get back to where we were.”
He also outlined how unfunded and underfunded mandates from the state impact town budgets.
“Some of the things that we think we do out of the course of doing business out of the course of the day are actually mandates that have an impact on our school budget,” Szymaniak said. “This is what we’re held to, so when we’re talking increases in costs, this is what the state determines we need to do as a district.”
Teacher evaluation, for example, used to consist of an administrator talking with a teacher, according to Szymaniak. The state now wants districts to generate evidence-backed data for such evaluations, requiring a software program — as well as added time not calculated for the comparison, which has doubled if not tripled over the past 10 years.
“As our student population grows, we might have to provide more teachers for that,” Szymaniak also said of English Language Learners. “We doubled our teachers — we had one teacher and two tutors last year — and by our numbers, we should have two teachers and a tutor, if not three teachers for next year.”
Health insurance costs are also expected to increase by about 5 percent next year. Finance Committees and town administrators have also been asking about full-day kindergarten, Szymaniak said. While it will not likely be a budget issue this year, but will likely come up in the future.
“FinComs asked, because we are putting expenditure out for charter schools … and when are we going to look at keeping our kids here,” he said. “That’s a piece that this board has looked at over time.”
Full-day kindergarten could help the district see charter school kids staying in the district over time, according to Szymaniak.
“I think you’re not going to see it the first year, but you will see a definite impact in that expense going out,” he said of the charter school money. “Once you establish roots in a school system, you’re going to stay.”
Special education costs are impossible to project, Szymaniak said, noting that just last week two students were placed out-of-district based on behavior issues that are “not acceptable to our school” and disrupt classrooms, effecting the education of other students.
School choice requires that districts permit students to attend schools where they want. Students that go out of W-H, brings in no money for the district, but students coming into the district bring in some funds.
“I don’t see myself advocating for less services than the meager services that we already provide,” School Committee member Fred Small said.
Hayes agreed, noting it was incumbent upon Szymaniak to present a budget outlining what it’s going to take to run the district and it was up to the committee to come up with a budget figure.
Where regional transportation is concerned, Small said he understands that the state wants communities to have “skin in the game” by limiting reimbursements.
“But the mandate is they shall fully fund regional transportation subject to appropriation,” he said. “We’ve cut our start times, we’ve done everything we can, software-related to create the best bus routes to save as much money as possible on our busing.”
He said there are problems with the state bidding process for bus contracts, because of the limited number of bus companies competing.
In other business, Dan Sullivan of CLA provided an auditors’ report.
“All the information in the financial records were presented fairly, were presented in compliance with what you need to do to prepare the financial statements,” he said. The clean report indicated that the district does not need to make any changes in its practices.
The outside audit encompasses reviews of financial statements, internal controls and accounting principals as well as a government-required single audit of grant expenditures and bonds to determine a bond rating.
“Management and staff were responsive to all our inquiries,” Sullivan said. “We had no [problems] with the way things were reported.”
District Treasurer David Leary also provided a positive report on the district’s debt position, OPEB and transfers of scholarship accounts to better-yield investment vehicles.