The W-H Regional School District rolled out its proposed fiscal 2019 budget at the Wednesday, Feb. 7 School Committee meeting — a foundation budget of $50,706,972 that is up 4.1 percent from fiscal 2018. The current fiscal 2018 budget is $48,688,029.
The projected deficit for that budget now sits at $2,674,821 with a projected revenue shortfall — without a local assessment increase — of $655,878 and increased expenses of $2,018,943. Last year, the deficit a rollout was $2.7 million.
Operating assessments will depend on the final operating budget approved by the School Committee by mid-March. Last year’s assessment increase was about 8.5 percent on average — higher for Whitman than Hanson based on enrollment. Hypothetically an 8.5 percent assessment increase this year, coupled with a $500,000 transfer from excess and deficiency, would still leave a $457,000 deficit. For each 1 percent of an assessment increase, it means $202,000 in revenue for schools.
The foundation budget proposal centers on a level service plan with the addition of “several top priorities that the leadership and administrative teams have deemed are critical to the success of WHRHSD students,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner wrote in her budget book introduction.
“The numbers tonight are just the beginning, but we feel it’s very important to express to you all what we see as the financial needs of the school system,” she said.
Those priorities include: the first of a multi-year one-to-one devices (Chromebooks) plan; two special education teachers for middle school science inclusion; a family liaison and instructional materials for the elementary science program.
“The issue of level services is rather unique this year and that is because we’re closing the Maquan School, which has really shifted funding a way from Maquan … to the other buildings and also to programs,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “It’s what I call a proposed budget.”
Some of the approximately $600,000 in cost savings to be realized this year as a result of closing Maquan are a principal’s salary as Dr. Eliabeth Wilcox serving as principal of both Maquan and Indian Head schools, consolidation of the Indian Head special ed programs and pro-rated building utilities, maintenance and insurance costs. School-by-school, budgets show scales of increase depending on where Maquan programs are moved.
A $40,000 request for Chromebooks, licenses and carts is part of a $155,000 seven-year initiative taking district schools through fiscal 2026.
Priorities not included, but still advocated are: full-day, no-cost kindergarten; consistent school opening times; supplementing the middle school foreign language program; instrumental music, professional development; and instructional materials to align with updated state standards.
Committee member Fred Small expressed concern over how much could be safely transferred from excess and deficiency. Last year, $750,000 was taken from that account to lessen the budget shortfall, with $1.3 million returned from the previous fiscal year. Over the course of fiscal 2018, only $450,000 had been put back.
“The budgets are just tighter and tighter,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “We’ve become more dependent on it and with very tight budgeting we’re not putting back the same [amounts as in the past].”
Right now, there is $936,761 in excess and deficiency.
“If we look at $750,000 this year and we’ve got $936,000 in it, we’ve got to hope that nothing goes wrong or changes in the school district or throughout the year,” School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said. “I would recommend we don’t hit that for anywhere near $750,000 this year.”
Chapter 70 state funds have leveled off since local target shares of total school budgets were begun in 2007. State calculations have the WHRSD receiving $4 million more in Chapter 70 funds than it should be, Gilbert-Whitner said.
“Whitman Finance Committee is currently meeting with departments and reviewing their budgets … I appreciate the opportunity to have this information to bring back to them early,” said Richard Anderson, whose board will be meeting with school district representatives in the next couple of weeks. “We’re facing some pretty significant challenges in the town of Whitman, but it’s still early in the process.”
State Education figures put the average per-pupil expenditure at $15,545, while W-H’s per-pupil expenditure is $11,815. To meet the state average, Gilbert-Whitner said the W-H foundation budget would have to be $62,180,000.
Declining enrollment, one of the considerations that went into closing the Maquan School, is also a challenge for school budgets across the state as well as the nation.
“People might think right away, ‘Enrollment is down, why is this budget going up?’” said Whitman resident Dawn Byers. “For me, personally, I have two children at home, when they move on to college my enrollment at my home is going to be zero, but my homeowners insurance might go up, my personal health insurance might go up.”
State Rep. Josh Cutler, D-Duxbury, said state revenues are running $158 million above projected benchmarks for January and about $800 million higher for the year to-date, but cautioned that could be in part due to people pre-paying property taxes ahead of implementation of the new federal tax reform act.
Staff members from the offices of state Rep. Geoff Diehl, R-Whitman, and state Sen. Mike Brady, D-Brockton, joined Cutler at the meeting.
Cutler also said the consensus revenue forecast is up 3.5 percent in terms of revenue growth, which in turn should mean local aid would increase by the same percentage.
The minimum per-pupil increment, however has again started at a rate of $20 by the governor.
“That’s happened in the past,” Cutler said. “We’ve always been able to increase that number — last year to $30, two years ago to $50. I’m optimistic that we’ll see an increase in that. I don’t know how much it’s going to be yet.”
He said the Regional School Caucus has been more active and has been trying to increase spending for regional school transportation, among other needs.
“The idea is that we should be reimbursed at 100 percent,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “We are not.” She added that circuit-breaker funds that aid special education is supposed to be a 75-percent reimbursement, but is currently at 65 percent.
The W-H operating budget also depends on grants and other funding sources for $1.7 million of its revenue, according to Gilbert-Whitner.
“Over 88 positions in the WHRSD are paid for by grants,” she said. “These are extremely important. If these federal grants are cut or reduced, that’s a huge hit to the WHRSD and that needs to then be picked up by the operating budget.”
Charter school as well as homeless student transportation reimbursements are also paid to the district by the state at a rate of less than 100 percent.
“We have some real concerns with some of the revenue at the state level,” Gilbert-Whitner said.