Whitman-Hanson school budget gains support
A group of nearly 500 concerned parents, community members, educators and business leaders who have teamed to form Whitman-Hanson Supporters of Schools (SOS). Representative members from both towns presented their concerns to the School Committee — and pledged to affect change in school budgeting — during the committee’s Wednesday, Dec. 16 meeting.
Kara Moser of Whitman read the group’s mission statement, which was printed in the Dec. 17 Whitman-Hanson Express opinion page.
“We aim to be a credible, proactive resource for accurate information to support education and drive informed action,” Moser read from the statement. “Together we will support our schools to build the future our children deserve.”
They were joined by retired Hanover Schools teacher, and Hanson resident Peggy Westfield, who also urged greater budget transparency to ease the effort to adequately fund the schools.
“I’m not here to chastise anyone,” Westfield said. “I’m here to say I’m very happy to defend the schools in Whitman-Hanson, but I cannot defend the way the budget is presented.”
Westfield said she had downloaded the fiscal 2016 budget from the district website and compared it to area schools, in particular the Hanover school budget posting.
She found the differences glaring.
“Transparent means open, frank and candid, and looking at the [W-H] budget on the website it is not open, frank or candid,” Westfield said, noting that Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner offered to sit down with her and explain it. “The Hanover school budget is a line-by-line budget and you know every thing that the Hanover Schools spent … right down to copy paper/postage.”
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said that information is printed in the town reports, but Westfield urged that it be available online. He applauded her for asking the questions.
“She’s not hitting us over the head and I know that,” Hayes said. “Communication is everything.”
Westfield stressed that, if people don’t know what the school district does with the money, they don’t want to give it any more.
“You have no trust out in the community,” she said.
Westfield also related that state Rep. Josh Cutler, D-Duxbury, has said Whitman-Hanson has the highest percentage of state aid than any school system on the South Shore.
Committee members and district officials said that assertion is inaccurate.
“We have to be very specific in telling [legislators] that increase didn’t cover anything,” said member Steve Bois. “It could have been $200 or $400 — after the charges from the state … it’s not an increase.”
Committee member Fred Small said the increase in Chapter 70 funds was actually $125,000 — only $25 per pupil.
“Part of the issue is, they look at what the state gives Whitman-Hanson [reimbursement rate] vs. what other towns are and they don’t take into consideration we are a regional school system,” said Hayes.
On the transparency issue, Gilbert-Whitner also noted that the district puts together a community guide to the budget, available online and at both town meetings. The committee also holds a meeting at which the budget is presented the first week of February. This year that meeting will be 7 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 3.
The budget is certified in a public meeting in mid-March.
“Nobody comes to the meetings,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “As we move forward with FY ’17 we’ll be working on making it more and more transparent.”
Chris George of Whitman suggested that part of the communication problem stems from the fact that, as a regional school district, the budget for the schools appears as a single line in the budget warrant article.
“If you come to the meetings they are [being transparent], but folks aren’t coming to those meetings so how do we put it back in their face — to say ‘Here it is. You’re voting on one line item, but here’s every single line in the budget,’” George said. “We need to do something different in how we present it.”
The committee has also planned a meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 13 at which Cutler, state Rep. Geoff Diehl, R-Whitman, and state Sen. Mike Brady, D-Brockton have been invited, and will attend, to discuss budget issues.
Gilbert-Whitner said an important issue about which they must be informed is proposed formula changes for Chapter 70 state aid that could be felt by fiscal 2018.
“The more aware we are about the change in that formula, the more intelligently we can speak to our senator and our two representatives,” she said. “Whitman-Hanson runs on its Chapter 70 money — $24 million of our $47 million budget comes from the state.”
Bois, who arranged the meeting as a member of the Legislative Affairs Subcommittee, said it is important for the legislators to see and hear from the large groups of teachers and the members of SOS who have attended recent School Committee meetings.
“It’s going to be very interesting and I’m asking them all to be here for the January meeting, because we told them it’s going to be somewhere between an hour to an hour and a half,” Hayes said. “We have people that have questions. Our task to you would be come with some questions. Ask them.”
Communication is a large part of the job, he stressed.