The School Committee on Wednesday, March 17 voted to approve and certify a fiscal 2022 budget of $57,572,579 — with an operating assessment of $16,575,019.22 for Whitman and $12,951,002.72 for Hanson — after non-mandating busing and some other costs, brings the total divided to $55,572,579.
“This is the beginning of sealing the budget process,” said Chairman Bob Hayes.
The votes were:
• Approve the fiscal ’22 budget at $57,572,579.40 with a vote of 8-1-1 [Committee member Fred Small voted no and Hayes abstained because his daughter teaches in the district.]
• Approve the operating assessment of $16,575,019.22 for Whitman with a vote of 8-1-1.
• Approve the operating assessment of $12,951,002.72
for Hanson with a vote of 8-1-1.
Committee member Dawn Byers asked for source material on the often-repeated assertion that once budget figures are set they cannot be increased — only decreased.
While he was not able to cite a specific law or regulation, Hayes said that has always been the assertion and asked Business Manager John Tuffy for clarification.
“I’m not sure I agree with you,” Tuffy said. “I’ve heard that here a couple times and, perhaps we should talk to district counsel. I believe that, up until Town Meeting, the budget can change and the assessments can then change because the budget changed.”
But once a budget is voted, certified by the treasurer and delivered to the towns, the budget cannot go up by any action of the school committee. At that point, it would take Town Meeting action for that to happen.
“I can only say I hope the committee supports what we’ve added for increases this year,” said Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak. “I know we spoke about potential federal money — and I believe that federal money is coming — however, tonight’s the night I don’t have a check from the fed. Tonight’s the night where you certify a budget.”
Szymaniak said he believes the federal funding will be “significant” but doesn’t know specific numbers yet.
“I believe what we asked for is prudent, it’s fiscally sound, knowing that both communities have some financial difficulties,” he said. “I just need some clarity from both communities on what’s affordable.”
The district is using the statutory assessment formula only this year.
“My desire here is for accuracy,” Tuffy said. “This is not a policy statement. This is mathematics, and if there are any errors or issues, we can work them out and make some changes.”
Estimated non-mandated transportation figures and would likely change when the district gets better information about ridership.
“The total amount won’t change, but perhaps the distribution will,” he said.
The cost of the HVAC work at Hanson schools will also change, according to Tuffy, and will only affect Hanson’s assessment. The minimum local contribution has increase $795,538, with Hanson’s up $320,803 and Whitman’s up $474,735.
At about $100,000 Medicaid reimbursements seem on par with previous years and the district expects to use about $600,000 in Circuit Breaker funds to offset the budget. Last year, $700,000 was used.
Projected regional transportation reimbursement is $697,269.
Interest income to the district is at $20,000; school choice revenue is estimated at $246,000; and charter school reimbursement is expected to be $124,000.
Costs for students going out of district through special education placements and outgoing school choice and charter school students are included in the budget lines, according to Tuffy.
“Obviously, we’d like to have an infinite pot of funds that we can draw down, but it’s good to take a step back,” said Committee member Christopher Howard. “Two years ago we basically spent a year on assessment methodology and this last year we tried to keep the wheels on the bus as a result of COVID … there are so many pieces that we could look at in terms of pulling this thing together.”
He suggested that the committee begin, perhaps during the summer, going through what things they would like to see and work toward working them into the budget a year from now.
“I think this is really good, given where we are — where we’ve been and what we’re going to do — and I support what you’ve put together,” Howard said.
Whitman Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman said an override is not being considered for his town this year. Hanson, however, is looking at a significant override.
“Hanson is driving the bus this year, as from a financial perspective,” Heineman said. “I think it’s important for a school budget that includes an assessment that will pass an override in Hanson.”
Byers said that is a “dangerous conversation” to have.
“I feel the towns have been driving the bus on our school budget for decades and, essentially, that’s why we’re at the bottom [in per-pupil spending],” she said. “At this point the committee has a duty to consider the students’ needs first and put forth a budget that meets our needs and the towns will decide how they fund it.”
Committee member Fred Small said every town is different, but that the district has been lucky to have received more in Chapter 70 funds over the years than other towns and districts, but noted that annual increases for Chapter 70 aid W-H has been miniscule.
Szymaniak also gave a re-entry plan update, noting that the facilities department has been working to place desks in classrooms with proper spacing and showing principals what the configurations look like. Assistant principals and school nurses are measuring all distances to ensure social distancing regulations are met on a geometric basis to aid contact tracing, if it is needed.
Whitman officials reached out to the district and told school officials that they will use CARES Act funds to help purchase the desks for Whitman Middle School required to group students at the proper distance, because trapezoid-shaped tables require pupils to face each other from within three feet apart
Assistant Superintendent George Ferro said the district had received 314 bus change requests as of March 16, but said 98 percent of them were from parents calling to confirm they are driving their children to school.
“What it [now] looks like on most of our bus routes is two to a seat and the bus routes look manageable,” Ferro said. New routes will be updated on the infinite campus web portal, under transportation, this week.
Enough middle school students are signed up for in-person learning, that live-streaming of classroom work will not be necessary except when administrators deem it an extenuating circumstance not limited to COVID.
“There safe operation of school is taking place,” Ferro said. “There is a return to normalcy, just like, hopefully, next September.”