The School Committee plans to open it’s Wednesday, Sept. 18 meeting with a public hearing on the funding formula on which assessments to the towns of Whitman and Hanson are set.
Lawyers for the committee, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), and school and town officials will be asked to attend.
“This needs to be done immediately, because it affects how we move forward budgetarily,” said School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes. “It has serious budget impact for everything that we do and this needs to get settled first. This is step one.”
Whitman Town Administrator Frank Lynam agreed this issue is too critical to get bogged down on.
“This stuff is fairly complicated and, unless we’ve got our eye squarely on the ball at all times, things will be either misinterpreted or not understood,” he said. “Let’s just say what’s done is done. We need to move forward. …The quicker we work on this, the quicker we work on the real work at hand, which is establishing a budget.”
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak provided information on the funding formula as he presented an update to the School Committee Wednesday, Aug. 28 on Whitman’s Override Evaluation Committee, which last met Monday, Aug. 26. [see related story, page one].
The School Committee approved a proposed new review of the Regional Agreement in June 2018, which was approved by Hanson voters that November. Whitman voters, however, passed over the article at Town Meeting in May.
“Questions had started to arise surrounding the Regional Agreement, whether a town could move out easier than not, but there was an overarching question mark about how the funding was broken up in the two towns,” Szymaniak said.
Szymaniak said the new language was confusing to him, particularly regarding the alternative method of assessment that has been used in the district since 1991 and the structural method requested by DESE. There has also been some question about whether DESE’s request was, indeed, a requirement.
A couple of School Committee members presented Szymaniak with a document regarding that recommendation dated 2007 “encouraging regional school districts to use the statutory method of assessment.”
There are two ways to fund a regional school district, according to Szymaniak. The statutory method is based on the minimum local school contribution and the alternative method, which does not — it is instead currently based on enrollment figures with Whitman bearing the cost of 60 percent of the school budget and Hanson 40 percent. Under the statutory method, he told Hanson Selectmen on Aug. 27 that Hanson might be paying more under the alternative method.
“That will change the amount of funding given by both communities,” Szymaniak said. He said he informed Hanson Selectmen that the change could be coming down the pike, but that School Department attorney Andrew Waugh has interpreted the situation as one where, if an alternative agreement is not adopted, the statutory agreement is used.
“The statutory agreement could swing the pendulum by close to $1 million from Whitman to Hanson,” Szymaniak said. He noted that Hanson Selectmen had questions and plan to seek counsel from their town attorney as well.
“It was more than a recommendation from DESE that we should do this,” he said. “Our counsel is involved with this. We’re still up in the air as far as a firm decision, but their guidance is them saying that we probably … should be using the statutory method for the fiscal 2021 budget.”
Szymaniak said that the alternative method — in which the funding for the prior year stays consistent and the assessment goes up based on pupil population — has been used by W-H.
“I’m an amateur at this,” Szymaniak said. “I’m walking through this for the first time, there’s a lot of new information and I’m not the numbers guy, yet.”
School Committee member Chris Scriven said he was looking for some direction on where the ambiguity lies, because his research on the DESE website indicates the statutory method is a requirement, not merely a recommendation.
“It looked like it was pretty clear,” Scriven said.
Szymaniak said he did not want to present inaccurate information, but wanted to present an idea of what is happening regarding the Regional Agreement.
He read the memo aloud at the meeting, a portion of which requires an annual unanimous affirmative vote by the appointing authority as required to change it to the alternative method.
“We’ve been using the alternative assessments, but I don’t remember us ever, prior to me, taking a vote on this piece of it,” Szymaniak said. “We’re trying to define what we need to do, as a committee, as a district, to move forward, and that’s the legal piece of it.”
A letter Szymaniak received from Waugh indicated that such a vote would be required to use the alternative method.
Hanson Selectmen have placed a place-holder article on the October Town Meeting to discuss revoking the town’s approval of the revised Regional Agreement.
Hayes said the Regional Agreement was revised simply to update it, especially where it referred to schools that no longer exist.
School Committee Christopher Howard said the issue carries the risk of moving officials’ eye off the ball.
“Let’s move on this quickly,” he said, noting that it could bog down efforts to move on improving the budget issue forward.
School Committee member Robert O’Brien Jr., asked how it could have gone unnoticed for 12 years, saying the state should have flagged any improper use of the alternative method by the district, despite the district’s annual filing of end of the year reports on how budget votes are taken.
Szymaniak said, while that is an issue of concern, it shouldn’t be allowed to derail progress on solving bigger budget issues.
“I want as clear a document as we can possibly have, moving forward in my tenure … so we’re not in a shade of gray,” he said.
Szymaniak, meanwhile, lauded the work and mission of Whitman’s Override Evaluation Committee.
“It’s a pretty awesome group of folks that are committed to, I think, what’s in the best interests of Whitman, specifically to see if there’s a need for an override in Whitman and what would that be?” Szymaniak said. “I think we have a couple of things hanging out there … but the group is asking some really good questions to see where Whitman would be in the next five to 10 years financially.”
He also noted that both the Override Evaluation Committee and the School Committee — using Mass. Association of Regional Schools (MARS) — have approved the conduct of reviews of their respective budgets and financial processes.
School Committee member Dawn Byers, who serves on the Override Evaluation Committee, said former Duxbury Finance Director John Madden’s review of Whitman’s financial picture is aimed to determine whether the town “really does need an override [for] a sustainable budget going forward.”
“The great thing about this committee is everyone has an equal voice at the table,” Szymaniak said. He noted the funding formula could have a “tremendous impact on the override and where the evaluation piece is and the financial needs of Whitman.”
Override panel Chairman Randy LaMattina, a member of Whitman’s Board of Selectmen said Madden will provide a progress report at the Monday, Sept. 16 meeting.
“The committee came up with this idea to add another level of transparency — another level of eyes doing an overview, an independent set of eyes — to go along with what Jeff has put forward with MARS,” LaMattina said. “It’s gathering information stage we’re at now.”
LaMattina said he does not think there is yet an answer to the question of whether an override will be necessary. He did say a previous estimate of October as a time frame for any Town Meeting to deal with an override issue was premature. Officials have lately been discussing the possibility of January or February for that.
A capital study conducted by the UMass Boston Collins Center will be presented at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 8 in the Whitman Town Hall Auditorium during a joint session of the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee.
“All pieces will work together,” LaMattina said, including involvement by the School Committee and Hanson officials. “I don’t have any results for you right now, but we have made progress.”
Hayes thanked the Override Evaluation Committee for their work findig solutions, cautioning that it is a “monumental task” that won’t be accomplished overnight.