School Committee members on Monday, July 22 began assessing the challenges involved in preparing for Whitman’s planned operational override in the fall, as well as possible approaches to long-term budget planning.
Member Dawn Byers and Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak, fresh from a meeting of Whitman’s nine-member Budget-Override Evaluation Committee earlier in the afternoon, also briefed the School Committee on the organizational and override question structural work done in that session.
The budget panel meets next on Aug. 12 to begin specific discussions on school and municipal budgets.
“I’d say the best I can do is a level-service budget with our increases,” Szymaniak said. “The challenge, and I brought it to the committee, is that I don’t want us to be level-serviced if we’re looking at moving forward and, members of the committee, we’re part of that.”
Szymaniak added that, if the aim is to plan budgets for five years ahead, he wants to make sure the district keeps moving educational services forward.
The School Committee next meets at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 28 and will, among other issues discuss the budget implications of where the district wants to be in the next five years. School Committee member Christopher Howard requested that Hanson officials be kept aware of budget discussions with Whitman officials.
Committee member Fred Small asked if the dollar amount lost to level-service budgets from last year to this year could be provided.
“I don’t want to see us go backward from where we were last year,” he said. “I’d also like to see you work on the plan for how we’re going to advance. To just stay still and tread water …”
Szymaniak said he is looking at a close to $2.5 million increase in the budget for fiscal 2021 — $1.349 million if neither full-day kindergarten, nor busing costs for a school start time change, are included.
“We’re having more students than ever go out [of district] through school choice and they’re going out earlier,” he said. “I’m not losing kids in seventh and eighth-grade. I’m losing them in kindergarten.”
Those school choice losses are no longer just to charter schools, Szymaniak added. Parents are sending them to neighboring districts, such as Rockland, that are adding to school budgets, or to online educational programs.
“We’re still bringing in revenue, which is great for us, but the movement is different and, I’m afraid if we don’t continue to move forward …” he said.
“School choice has turned it into a public school that has to be competitive with other public school towns,” School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said. “Public education is going to have to be competitive.”
School Committee member Dan Cullity argued that all-day kindergarten is vital to stem the eventual loss of revenue as more parents send their children to other districts.
“Number two, the state’s going to make [full-day kindergarten] a mandate,” Cullity said. “If they make a mandate, then we’ll really be behind the eight ball, so we should get ahead of it. … before we’re the last ones in the state.”
Szymaniak also said that voters often argue that sports should be cut to lower budgets.
“If I were to threaten to cut sports … if your children were going to be freshmen and there was a threat on the table … and you were nervous about that, you might enroll that child [at another school] and the revenue I would lose would be worth the $280,000 to $300,000 that’s in the budget for athletics,” he said. “Most of our athletic budget is from revolving and gates.”
Changes in technology education also have implications for budgets, where the previous one-to-one device policy is giving way to Chromebook carts as teachers find the use of laptop computers in the classroom.
“They’re not as used as everybody thought they were going to be,” Szymaniak said.
Capital challenges also lie ahead in the district’s antiquated phone system, $330,000 worth of inaccurate Whitman water bills since the high school opened, and the cost of moving district-owned fiber optic wires to new utility poles at a MassDOT project along Bedford Street in Whitman. Bids are now being sought for that work. Gas and electric costs are expected to be up about $83,000 and trash pickup is forecast up by about $7,500.
While the increase in state per-pupil funding was limited to $30, regional transportation funding has been increased to a level of — 82.5 percent reimbursement, a total $75.9 million — in the state budget approved for signing by Gov. Charlie Baker.
“I’m looking at custodial services [SJ Services] up $29,000 for fiscal 2021,” Szymaniak said. “First Student [busing] will be up $41,600. If we want to change our start times, it will be an up-front cost of $440,000 reimbursed the following year.”
If full-day kindergarten in implemented, it is expected to cost $710,000 and the district is looking at an additional $100,000 in curriculum costs wit the addition of an English program and $1.1 million in contracted salary increases, but Szymaniak is level-servicing special education.
“I think special education is going to level off,” Szymaniak said. “My gut tells me that. But that’s a tough number to go back.”
Szymaniak said the fiscal 2020 budget was complicated by the resignation of Indian Head Principal Jill Coutreau, but he hopes the appointment of an interim will save some money. He said he is looking to appoint a retired person so the full salary would not have to be paid.
He was also, through hiring at lower salaries to fill two resignations in other district positions — including the director of technology — to bring back a teacher at Conley School to reduce class size in grade five.
“Sometimes when you eliminate a job, the person applies … for another job posted in the district,” Hayes pointed out. “That position is still eliminated.”
Hiring in-house in those situations saves on unemployment costs, Hayes noted.
Szymaniak pointed out that the assistant facilities director position, who ran school building use, was also eliminated, with a technology department employee taking over a piece of that on a part-time basis. He is also researching a possible change in the fee structure for building use for profit-making leasees to present to the committee in the fall.
“We’re moving into a collaborative operation [with facilities, technology and transportation staff]. … We’re having meetings to talk about job responsibilities,” echoed Assistant Superintendent George Ferro. “We’re having meetings to talk about their own individual goals and the goals of their individual departments — and that has never taken place.”
Szymaniak is also considering an audit of the tech department to determine how the district can operate more sustainably in the coming years.