The School Committee on Wednesday, March 7 reluctantly voted to transfer $450,000 from the excess and deficiency fund to help a bit in closing the $2.6 million gap in the fiscal 2019 budget.
A $450,000 transfer from E&D would mean an 11 percent assessment increase to the towns to fully fund the budget – a $1,387,777 increase in Whitman and an $840,705 increase in Hanson over last year’s assessments.
Every 1 percentage of assessment is worth about $200,000 from both towns with about a 60/40 percent split based on population.
The enrollment certified Oct. 1, 2017 shows 2,333 or 59.82 percent of district students live in Whitman and 1,567 or 40.18 percent live in Hanson. The dollar amount swing at a level (equal to last year assessment) is an increase to Whitman of $ 54,699 and a decrease to Hanson of ( $ 54,699) before any potential assessment increase is voted by school committee.
School Committee members Fred Small and Dan Cullity voted against the transfer in the 6-2 vote. Members Kevin Lynam and Robert O’Brien Jr., were absent.
The committee was slated to vote on certifying the budget at its Wednesday, March 14 meeting. The committee also supported by consensus the drafting of a separate warrant article for full-day kindergarten for a possible vote March 14.
The proposed $43 million fiscal 2019 budget is level service-plus package.
“We have added some other items,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner. “One of those is a position we’re calling family liaison.”
A person with a social work or school adjustment counselor background would work with the three elementary schools as a liaison between the schools, the school community and with families to direct them to programs to provide help and to work with social work interns though North River Collaborative.
A $40,000 multi-year, one-to-one electronic device effort, the addition of a special education teacher to bolster the science curriculum at each of the middle schools and resources to fund the elementary science program, now funded by a grant, are also included in the spending plan.
“I’m not confident that we’ll see much more in terms of Chapter 70 state aid to schools unless we see it as an increase in per-pupil,” Gilbert-Whitner said. Right now, the formula adds $20 per pupil. There is, however some effort to increase that to perhaps an additional $75 to $100 at the State House level.
“Unfortunately, that’s not a number we’re going to have for you on March 14,” she said.
Regional transportation – which is supposed to be funded at 100 percent – comes in at around 60 to 70 percent at most, as do special education circuit-breaker funds. The last time the district was fully funded for regional transportation was 2007.
“We need to stay involved with our legislators,” Gilbert-Whitner said. “All of that will help with the deficit we’re trying to control.”
Special education costs have been a concern as well.
Small asked if the board was at a point where it would consider suing the commonwealth for full regional transportation reimbursement.
“The state auditor has issued a report saying that regional transportation should be funded at 100 percent,” he said. “There’s a lot of money at stake. … There is a bill that, I believe moved out of House Ways & Means [Monday], to take a look at how school regions are being funded.”
He also urged residents to write their state representatives to demand improvements in regional funding. Because of its status as a region, W-H cannot charge for busing, either.
“I get that that’s an aggressive move Mr. Small is proposing,” said School Committee member Christopher Howard. “But we’re again staring at a budget none of us like, so at some point we have to do something.”
In the past four years, the region has lost about $4 million in unfunded regional transportation reimbursements.
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes suggested bringing in state legislators to ask for legislation to increase that funding, which the committee supported by consensus.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” he said.
The committee then turned its focus to the annual decision over tapping into E&D funds.
“Every year, in the last few years, we’ve been hitting excess and deficiency,” Hayes said. “Right now, there’s $936,000 in E&D.”
In June 2016 E&D was certified at $1.2 million with $750,000 taken to help balance the current budget with just over $400,000 returned. Over the past three years amounts put back into E&D have decreased with the use of more exacting budget software – $422,000 last year, $600,000 the year before and close to $800,000 the year before that.
“I want to be very cautious,” Small said.
“The trend we’re taking – E&D isn’t supposed to balance the budget, it’s supposed to be for emergencies,” Dan Cullity agreed. “We’re chipping away at what we’re supposed to have for reserves to pay for the budget. … This is dire. We can’t keep putting that E&D to pay for the budget.”
Hayes predicted that, at the current rate, there will be no E&D money within a year to two years.
Since the School Committee is able to budget only once a year, it is permitted to keep an excess and deficiency fund up to 5 percent of the budget, which would be $2.5 million if fully endowed, for emergencies during the year, including unforeseen special education costs.
A $500,000 transfer from E&D would mean a 10.75 assessment increase to the towns to fully fund the budget – a $1,302,781 increase in Whitman and an $875,054 increase in Hanson. A $400,000 transfer from E&D would mean an 11.25 assessment increase to the towns to fully fund the budget – a $1,363,375 increase in Whitman and a $915,754 increase in Hanson.
School Committee member Steven Bois, suggested the $450,000 transfer.
“I can’t see taking more than what we put back last year and we’ve been trending down, down, down with what we’re putting back,” Small said. “My comfort zone is $400,000.”
Bois said he would not consider a suggestion by Small to reduce the amount to $400,000.
“I’m not withdrawing [his motion for amendment],” Bois said. “Discuss the merits of the $450,000. … We’re ushering in a new superintendent, we’re ushering in a new assistant superintendent, we’re ushering in a new high school principal. I’m sorry, I’m not willing to [BS] around with this.”
He added he is ready to vote for an assessment equal to the balance of the budget.
“I just feel we’re playing with one-time money – and it’s supposed to be emergency money,” Small said.