The School Committee, in a special meeting Monday night, unanimously voted to set a 15.1 percent increase — $3,349,712 — in the assessments to the towns in support of a level-service budget. The fiscal 2020 budget has not yet been certified.
Based on enrollment, Whitman would pay 59.82 percent, in dollars a total assessment of $15,273,983 — an increase of $2,003,798 over the current assessment. Hanson would pay 40.18 percent, a total assessment of $10,259,255 — an increase of $1,345,914 over the current assessment.
The proposed budget is up by 5.4 percent overall.
“I can’t see going backwards,” said School Committee member Fred Small. “I think it will be up to the taxpayers to decide and we should let them decide. I would urge everyone to support staying the same for another year, as horrible as that is.”
“It seems to me there’s an erosion of public schools,” School Committee member Robert Trotta said. “It’s a sad commentary on the way in which public schools are looked at. It’s a shame. I think public schools are probably one of the best investments for a community and I would be disheartened if we could not support these people that we have.”
He said he would not support less than a level-service budget.
“I would love this to include some programs that we were bringing back, but I know, realistically, it can’t happen so I’m not going to ask for anything less than 15.1 [percent],” said School Committee member Alexandria Taylor.
The Committee decided to wait for a full end-fiscal year accounting report before making a decision on whether to tap into excess and deficiency because that account is down to $961,237 at this time.
Of the $8,131,147 in costs for programs mandated by the state, only $2,100,957 of those costs are fully funded, leaving $5,067,542 unfunded or underfunded for the Whitman-Hanson Regional School District. [See tables, page 3].
“It’s not just Chapter 70 money, it’s not just the governor’s budget with funding regional districts and funding towns, it’s the under-funded and unfunded mandates that are bleeding our district right now,” Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said.
Special education costs have also increased suddenly in recent days, including one incident in which a teacher ended up in urgent care because of a bite from a student with “social-emotional and cognitive issues” and another student who was making suicidal threats. Between the two issues and transportation costs, the special education budget increased by $650,000, for which Szymaniak is hoping to use Circuit Breaker funds.
“These are our students,” he said, noting he has also been approached by parents asking when gifted and talented students would benefit from programs. “We do a lot of here … and now some of these under-funded and unfunded mandates are now taking away from the decisions we make educationally for our students.”
After district officials pared $292,000 from the budget over the last two weeks “without affecting any people” in the district. That figure includes a $197,000 savings in insurances, a reduction of $20,000 from the substitute teacher line, a cut to the Chromebook initiative approved last year by $53,000, a $2,000 reduction to facilities general supplies, $5,000 from instructional supplies and a class Szymaniak is currently taking — at $10,000 — is a one-time expense that won’t appear in the fiscal 2020 budget. The budget for legal costs was trimmed by $10,000, funds for the English Language Learners program were cut by $10,000, the summer school budget was cut by $5,000.
Before the cuts, the budget would have required a 16.4 percent increase to reach level service.
“The things that we’ve already cut so far, the $292,000 [in cuts] are not people, anywhere else, we are going to start cutting folks,” Szymaniak said.
He supplied the committee with breakdown of how potential budget cuts would effect general staff, supply and program funds as well as how assessment cuts would hit class size.
“[It’s] something we’ve really tried hard to keep under wraps, so to speak — not to hide anything from the public, but to not have people get nervous and bail, or leave, or decide to apply elsewhere,” Szymaniak said. He said there was also a concern that parents were already opting to send their children to other schools, such as South Shore Tech, parochial high schools or charter schools.
Hanson Middle School is forecasting that about 106 eighth-grade students were planning to attend WHRHS, with 27 accepted at South Shore Tech and six private or Catholic School applications out.
Whitman Middle School, meanwhile, with 201 eighth-graders, has reported that 34 have already been accepted at South Shore Tech, with another 20 on a wait list and 13 applying to Catholic school.
“Those numbers I haven’t seen since I’ve been here,” Szymaniak said. “I think the word is out that there might be severe budget cuts and our eighth-graders are seeking to go to school elsewhere.”
A level-funded budget, in which no increase to the bottom line would require program cuts, Szymaniak said 54 positions — or 48 people — would be lost in the areas of tech support, counseling, foreign languages, teachers and all three school levels, facilities, paraprofessionals, administrative support, the high school library, elementary music, reading and district leadership.
Education programs hit would include elementary math, music and science; middle school Spanish and related arts; electives; financial literacy; district curriculum coordinators and reading.
Class sizes would also be impacted with elementary and middle schools losing one teacher per grade level and the high school losing one teacher per department.
“I told district staff today that we’re going to advocate for our people and our programs, things that we’ve committed to that are in the best interests of our students and our communities,” he said. Both school choice, for students moving out of district, and charter school numbers are both up.