School panel looks ahead to assessments
The School Committee is taking a close look at the assessment increase they are seeking from Whitman and Hanson to help close the fiscal 2018 budget gap.
Revenue will be short by $869,767, with expenses at $1,857,987.
The $750,000 transferred from the excess and deficiency account at the Wednesday, Feb. 15 meeting narrows that gap a bit — from $2,727,754 to $1,997,754.
“I do anticipate being able to put money back into E&D, but at this time of year, it’s very difficult to figure out how much that will actually be,” said Business Services Director Christine Sukow. “We don’t know what the next few months will be with utilities and snow, and we have so much personnel movement that that’s a real volatile area, as well.”
Excess and deficiency is depended on to fund financial emergencies during the fiscal year and is replenished from unspent funds calculated into utilities and maintenance on a worst-case scenario basis. Town free cash accounts work in a similar way, Sukow said.
The assessments to each town was tabled to another meeting to give the district time to see what cuts can be made, giving the committee a better idea where they stand. They must set an assessment by March 15 — 45 days before town meetings.
“There are certainly adjustments we can make, but we need to get a sense of where you all think you’re going to set the assessment,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner said.
Every percentage point in the assessments add $186,782 to the budget. Completely closing the gap by operating assessment increases would require an increase of about 10.5 percent ($1,960,541 — $1,167,502 from Whitman and $793,039 from Hanson). The towns are assessed based on population, with Whitman paying 59.55 percent and Hanson paying 40.45 percent.
“I don’t want to make an assessment and then whittle it down,” School Committee member Robert Trotta said. “We just can’t do it anymore. Whatever assessment we make, we’ve got to stick with. What that is, I’m not sure myself, but there’s no way we can settle for 3 percent like we have in the past.”
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said he did not think setting the assessment now is wise without more work on the budget being done.
School Committee member Fred Small, who chairs the facilities subcommittee, suggested separating out capital items.
“I can see [Gilbert-Whitner’s] concern that it would be a tremendous risk that, if we took a curriculum item and separated it out and it didn’t pass — what do you do?” Small said. “But at the same time, what do we do with a $1.9 million deficit?”
Suckow said she and Science Curriculum Director Mark Stephansky have met with the materials publisher to determine if it can be financed over three or four years to help save money. She has also called them back to ask about four or five-year financing.
“I’d be very hesitant with curriculum,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “I’d be much more in favor of reducing the cost impact to this budget by spreading it out over time.”
“We’re struggling just to have just to have the same services as we have this year,” Small said, noting that the two towns are not near the target share the state wants to see for local school spending. “We’re not moving forward. … We’re fighting just for level services.”
He advocated formulating an option through which the towns can decide whether they want to back educational progress.
“Give us level services at Town Meeting and then decide how far forward you’d like us to go,” he said. “I think we need to step forward.”
Hayes indicated it would require a 10.5-percent assessment increase to fund a level-service budget.
“At this particular point, we’re not even talking about level services, we’re talking about cuts,” Hayes said.
Hayes estimated it would mean cutting about 33 positions.
“It’s going to be staff cuts,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “We have met on this over and over again. If you look at the increases, it’s staffing and health insurance — it’s people.”
She argued that, for a district 10th or 11th from the bottom in per-pupil spending statewide, it is not an outrageous budget, and noted that finance committees have asked if the schools are looking for an override.
“I think we have to say to the citizens, ‘Are you looking to an override?’ because I don’t think we can go through this year what we went through last year,” she said. “We were hammered in Hanson.” In 2016, Whitman narrowly defeated an override and Hanson rejected it by a 2:1 margin.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Human Resources, Safety and Security Patrick Dillon said a review of the average teacher salaries in surrounding communities shows in the 2014-15 school year — the latest for which state numbers are available — W-H is at $78,000 and the state average if $76,000. The local average in the region is $77,700 in a range of from $72,000 to $83,400.
“We’re right in the middle of the pack,” he said.
The level-service budget includes a $778,065 increase for contractually obligated faculty salaries: an added ESL teacher ($66,552) due to an increase in the district’s ESL population; three teachers added from last year’s transfer from excess and deficiency ($170,223) to address class size and $58,195 to cover decreased funding of a 21st Century grant that funds an at-risk student program at the high school, — totaling $1,073,035 — according to Suckow. Retirement assessments are increasing by $227,129. Health insurance is expected to rise by at least 10 percent, with more information available in March.
“We’ll be lucky if it’s 10,” Gilbert-Whitner said.
Contracted services are also going up in price. Utility costs are up $3,560 and transportation is up by 4 percent or $57,563. Curriculum costs are up $220,000 and a free pilot program at the middle schools expires in June. Elementary-level costs for supplies, based on enrollment, is up $769 for replacement materials.
On the plus side, the recent refinance of the high school building reduced payments by just over $22,000. School choice costs for students going to other districts is down by just over $50,000 as only eight students are going to other schools — down from 16 last year.
Committee discusses the effects of possible cuts
The School Committee discussed on Wednesday, Feb. 15 the ramifications of possible cuts to services and facilities use the W-H Regional School District is considering in the effort to close a $2.8 million shortfall in a level-service budget for fiscal 2018.
“There’s a lot of discussion that, when I mentioned Maquan closings, double sessions, eliminating the sports program or staff reductions, that that was threatening,” School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said. “That’s this committee’s charge. This committee is here to come up with a budget. There is no threat. It’s something we have to look at.”
Before the end of the meeting, the committee voted to transfer $750,000 from the excess and deficiency account to help close the gap, but more difficult decisions remain.
At the Feb. 1 budget roll-out, 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 Feb. 1. “This is not ‘we keep coming to you and crying wolf,’ this is serious. Every year it gets worse and worse and worse.”
Closing the Maquan Elementary School in Hanson could save an estimated $800,000, but even if that option is accepted, school officials said special needs programs would need until September 2018 to make that kind of move. Maintenance costs associated with Maquan since 2012 have amounted to more than $600,000.
The savings could break down to about $135,000 in academic staff salaries — one teacher and three paraprofessionals through retirement and attrition — and $245,000 annually in the reduced number of administrators and nurses required. A nominal savings of $3,000 to $4,000 could be seen in technology needs. The bigger savings is seen in the $141,000 from SJ Services — as there would be one less building to clean — as well as $152,000 in facilities maintenance costs and $50,000 annually in insurance, according to Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Human Resources, Safety and Security Patrick Dillon. He looked at existing capacity and declining enrollment in his study.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner said there are 130 students in the fifth grade at Indian Head right now, with only about 110 in grade four and about the same in lower grades in Hanson.
No appreciable savings would be realized from special education changes or transportation costs and some $45,000 annually would be lost from space now rented at Maquan to North River Collaborative and a one-time cost of $15,000 would be involved in moving classroom equipment.
“It looked as if trying to close it for this upcoming fall of 2017 could create more disorder and chaos than we would be able to manage,” said Gilbert-Whitner. “If the building were to go back to the town, they could possibly rent it to North River Collaborative, which would be a revenue source, but clearly up to the town.”
Special Education Coordinator John Quealy said moving programs to other schools in the district would take some time and must adhere to laws governing age disparity of students in the same building. Changes must also take into consideration the effect on the special needs children and their families, both Gilbert-Whitner and Quealy said.
The district’s pre-school program could be housed at the Duval Elementary School, according to Dillon.
Hanson Middle has 25 classrooms with 500 students, Indian Head has 27 classrooms with 540 students. Duval has seen a “significant decline” in enrollment, according to Gilbert-Whitner, from 645 school-wide about four years ago to 493 today.
School officials do not anticipate a bump in enrollment for the foreseeable future, but Hayes indicated split sessions or portable classrooms could be a short-term solution to any unexpected spike.
Moving to a kindergarten through grade four school at Indian Head would be possible, Dillon said, echoing Quealy’s concern about integrating Maquan programs into other schools.
Gilbert-Whitner noted that repairs have been made to both Maquan and Indian Head Elementary following the unsuccessful plan for a new preK-grade five school in Hanson a few years ago.
The district and Hanson officials are looking for an engineering study to determine needed work to the HVAC system at Maquan and the cost of doing that work and other repairs are estimated to exceed $5 million.
“They were not particularly encouraging that that kind of money was available to make those kinds of repairs, and in addition to that, just concerns that maybe nothing would be done until something drastic happened at that school,” Gilbert-Whitner said of a recent meeting with the Hanson Capital Improvement Committee. “That was frightening to me as a superintendent.”
Hayes agreed, saying that North River Collaborative is looking for “a tremendous amount of space” and may want to lease the entire Maquan building.
Over the last two weeks, school officials have been looking closely at enrollment trends, available space and time frames.
Closing Maquan would also mean the district would not need to do a statement of interest with the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for Maquan and Whitman Middle is still within the 20-year cost clawback regulations regarding needed roof repairs.
Gilbert-Whitner said a Maquan closing would trigger gradual downsizing with maintenance focused on needed repairs for equipment that breaks, but no major repair projects undertaken.
“I don’t think, personally, the town is going to save a ton of money … but even if they close it, the town’s not getting off scot-free,” said Hanson School Committee member Robert O’Brien Jr., noting the length of time the former Plymouth County Hospital building stood empty. He suggested Hanson officials hold public meetings on the issue.
Business Services Director Christine Suckow has been researching the implications of eliminating the athletics program at W-H as a cost-saving possibility.
The current proposed athletics program is just under $400,000 — most of which goes to salaries, insurance and the cost of reconditioning equipment, mandated by the state law. The athletics revolving account, which is outside the budget and is funded by user fees and gate receipts, is about $200,000 and pays for referees, bus transportation to games and supplies not covered in the operating budget.
Eliminating the sports program would also eliminate the revolving account without sports for which to sell tickets.
The district has already sent out, through the WHEA teachers’ union, advising that the July 1 notification rules would be waived for any staff considering retirement in the near future. The district could then hire replacements at a lower salary or leave posts vacant.
Gilbert-Whitner said there has already been some interest expressed in that option.
Food Services may also be asked to pay $50,000 for a part of utility bills, as is permitted by the federally-funded program independent of the operating budget.
If the district stopped non-mandated busing, the towns would not have to pay that cost, Suckow said. For Hanson, that cost is $102,026 and in Whitman it is $365,362.
“The towns could charge for non-mandated busing,” Gilbert-Whitner said.