Officials unveil level-service plan, make case for ‘Student Success’ budget
As promised, the Whitman-Hanson Regional School District rolled out two budget proposals during the Wednesday, Feb. 3 School Committee public hearing on the fiscal 2017 budget.
A $45,714,344 level-service budget, already reflecting a $1,388,214 deficit due to increases in fixed costs, was outlined by line item, followed by the review of three goals that would be incorporated in a “Student Success” budget that would add $3 million to the bottom line.
The current fiscal 2016 budget of $45,688,067 had been increased only .01 percent — reflecting an increase in local assessments of 3 percent, or about $500,000.
Several officials from both towns’ select boards and finance committees were joined by the district’s state legislators and dozens of educators and concerned parents at the annual budget presentation.
“I have in front of me a stack of letters from constituents of the School District to all of us,” School Committee Chairman Robert Hayes told his members. “I also had come to the district a stack of letters from a second grade group of students talking about restoring libraries. We’re hearing you. We’re going to be discussing it.”
He implored concerned residents to attend meetings during which the budget is discussed.
“We believe in education, that’s why we’re on this board,” he said.
The budget is available online at whrsd.org along with information on state Chapter 70 aid reviewed by Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) representative Melissa King.
Whitman is currently 8.5 percent — or $1,322,998 — short of the target share sought by the state in its Chapter 70 calculations. Hanson is 5.21 percent below target share — $1,170,654.
Two Whitman residents urged adoption of the student success budget.
“I think the students deserve that,” one resident said. “They’ve lost a good amount of things over the years.”
“Our kids deserve every last bit of this,” Marshall Ottina said. “How can we, in any good conscience, not vote for this $3 million?”
“This is the beginning of the budget process for the district,” said Hayes in his introduction to the hearing. “The superintendent meets with the leadership team and they go over and present the budget and formulate what you have in front of you. This is the first night.”
He stressed that the final budget may not end up looking “anywhere near” the presentation as the committee works toward a vote on a spending plan for fiscal year 2017. That vote must come in mid-March, 45 days before the town meetings.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner made the budget presentation, beginning with an overview and historical background. She then discussed grants/other funding sources, revenue and the budget proposals in turn, pausing for questions as they came up.
“This has been a long process, and probably one of the most challenging ones we’ve done,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “It’s going to cost 2.25 percent — or approximately $1.1 million — more just to do the same thing [as in fiscal 2016].”
The average per-pupil spending statewide, according to DESE, is $14,518 (fiscal 2013-14), but W-H spends $11,126 per pupil — 10th from the bottom, she noted.
“I think we do a great job in this district in terms of getting a lot out of a dollar,” Gilbert-Whitner said of the student success budget proposal. “But there’s a lot we’re not doing. For many years we’ve been told W-H cries wolf because we’re getting good results and, darn it, look what they can do. But this year we couldn’t fix it.”
The “three pillars” of the proposal — healthy bodies/healthy minds, a cohesive prekindergarten to grade 12 system and safe/secure schools — include budgeting $500,000 toward reducing elementary class size, $400,000 to implement free all-day kindergarten, $320,000 to restore the library program, $240,000 to replace the grant funding the elementary science curriculum, $70,000 for middle school foreign language programs and about $170,000 for music and art, among other line items.
Professional development expenditures have declined to $35.17 per pupil, vs. a state average of $217.34. Enrollment had also been declining in recent years, but has begun to stabilize. One lower-than-average expenditure Gilbert-Whitner highlighted was administrative costs — 2.77 percent of the budget. The state average is $500.15 per pupil, while W-H spends $314.81.
“We often hear in the district that people think we are administration-heavy,” she said. “We put our money into classroom and specialist teachers.” [W-H is at $4,437.61 per pupil with the state average $5,441.36.]
Grants augment revenue in several key programs, but some the district receives are expiring and competition for some others is becoming more keen.
“There aren’t nearly as many grant opportunities available, but we certainly need them,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “We are funding 81 positions outside of the LEA budget.”
School Choice, accepted for high school students only and bringing in $5,000 per student from sending districts, funds programs for that school only. WHRHS is using the funds to hire the teachers needed to help implement a schedule and program of studies change next year.
Hayes vehemently denied rumors that the high school recruits school choice students. It is also against MIAA rules.
The bulk of revenue, however, comes from Chapter 70 and local aid funds.
State representatives Josh Cutler, D-Duxbury, and Geoff Diehl, R-Whitman, as well as state Sen. Mike Brady, D-Brockton, have signed onto a letter to the House and Senate Ways & Means committees seeking an increase in the Chapter 70 funding formula. The increase would change the minimum aid increment from $20 to $50 per pupil. It was $25 per pupil last year.
“It’s a protection,” Diehl said. “Chapter 70 is a formula because it protects those funds from being politicized.”
That said, he noted legislators on both sides of the aisle recognize more funds are needed. Diehl also credited Cutler for his networking on behalf of regional schools on Beacon Hill.
“We try to bump up the numbers wherever we have the ability to do so,” Cutler said about the minimum aid. “It is something we are all in unison on.”
Brady said the school budget funding formula is reviewed every year.
“But at the end of the day, we have to balance the budget,” he said. “In the meantime, we can try to file any amendments you’d like to try to adjust the budget.
Projected revenue for the WHRSD level service budget now stands at $45,326,130 with no assessment increases from the towns other than to account for population shifts.
Debt payments for the high school are about $100,000 lower for the towns after a refinance in June.
Non-mandated transportation assessments in the FY 2017 budget are $351,012 for Whitman and $96,280 for Hanson — also calculated by enrollment, a figure that also drives local assessment calculations.
Organized by school, the FY 2017 level service budget line items show, for example, that elementary principals’ travel and supplies funds were eliminated and teacher salary changes reflect contract or status changes and any use of revolving funds. District expenses also reflect changes in debt service and reductions in legal fees not needed after teacher contract negotiations concluded.