What had been billed as a discussion of the effect of the school district’s budget on town finances, on Tuesday, March 8, devolved for a time into a debate on the intentions of the Whitman and Hanson Select boards and the meaning of partnership, but concluded with some firm ideas of how future budget planning should be conducted.
Whitman Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski chaired the joint select board meeting, as Hanson Selectmen Chairman Matt Dyer unable to attend due to work commitments.
Kowalski said he and Dyer “had a nice talk” about the meeting objectives on Monday.
“There’s been, apparently, some varying opinions about what this meeting was all about,” Kowalski said, opening the session. “Matt and I kind of agree [on] what we think the meeting is about, so we wanted that, in his absence, I communicate that to you all, too.”
That focus was to be simply a joint meeting of the two select boards, stemming from a meeting among the town administrators and selectmen Randy LaMattina of Whitman and Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett of Hanson, who thought it would be a good idea for the two boards to meet together to look at the fiscal 2023 district budget and — at some point, pay some attention to the long-range school district sustainability, according to Kowalski.
While he concluded the meeting saying it may have been a mistake to set up a meeting just between the select boards, even as he said some objectives had been met. What needs to be worked on, he said is a process for next year’s budget cycle, not this year’s.
“I see the meeting as our giving the schools advice for their certification meeting next week,” Kowalski said. “As the two boards of selectmen get together, might be able to let them know what we think we can handle for the next year over this year and what might happen in the future.”
When Hanson Selectman Joe Weeks offered appreciation for both the Whitman Selectmen and the School Committee for meeting with them, less than 20 minutes into the session, School Committee Chairman Christopher Howard complained that he was not invited, although Whitman Selectmen did express their intention that Howard, Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak and Business Manager John Stanbrook to be invited to the meeting.
“Wow,” someone could be heard whispering into an open mic.
“We’re here to observe,” Howard said. “Before we talk about partnerships, we’re here to listen, but we were not included or invited to this conversation.”
Hanson Selectman Jim Hickey said he was against the meeting, while he favored the premise, but excused himself because he was under the impression that a formal invitation had been extended.
“I don’t have any authority,” Howard said, stressing that he is only one of 10 votes on the School Committee.
Kowalski suggested there may have been a communication problem between himself and Howard.
“I made it clear that I did not want the Superintendent to feel he needed to make a presentation … and was clear that they be included in the meeting,” Kowalski said.
Heineman wanted to make it clear that he wanted to send a formal email invitation … but his explanation was cut short by Hickey’s walkout. He later said that Szymaniak asked him to hold off on a formal email until he could talk to Howard, who issued his own email saying he would be there.
“The question is not the invitation, it’s the expectation,” Howard said. “We do not have the authority to work with the boards of selectmen on the budget.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett said a process needed to be documented to settle the issue by discussing best practice and a possible timeline for solving it, for another meeting.
Whitman resident Shawn Kain lauded Howard’s five-year budget plan to foster sustainability in the regional budget.
“If the schools are laying all their cards on the table for the next five years, it would be very helpful for both towns to do the same,” he said. “Then you have a more productive conversation about this year and you could predict what’s going to happen in the next couple of years.”
Whitman Selectman Justin Evans had expressed concern at the outset about the schedule of budget talks between the towns and the school district, which has, over recent years, waited until the statutory deadline to vote a budget before presenting it to the towns.
“That begins our process of trying to make everything work out,” Evans said. “If the whole process could be moved forward a little bit, it would make balancing the town budgets a lot easier on our side, for Whitman, at least.”
He said that he imagined Hanson was in a similar predicament.
“If we wait until we get numbers from the schools, it’s often mid-March, late March mid-April by the time we’re all sort of in agreement — one year, even up to town meetings,” he said.
Kowalski asked the town administrators about what they foresee as the assessment figures their towns could handle.
Whitman Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman said the assessment figure, which called for a 5.76 percent increase, presented by Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak on Feb. 2, would require the use of one-time revenue — free cash — in Whitman. The 3.67 percent increase quoted on Feb. 16 would fit within Whitman’s levy without the use of free cash, but he expressed concern about that being the case for fiscal 2025 and beyond.
“What the schools are asking now we can handle within our levy,” Kowalski confirmed.
Hanson Town Administrator Lisa Green said she and Town Accountant Todd Hackett had to use some placeholders to calculate the budget, working with a 3.25, 3.5 and 4 percent assessment variables.
“We thought we were safe with a 3.5 percent assessment [increase],” she said. “When we came to the meeting and saw the 5.76 [percent] and they rounded it down to 3.7 [percent] … The tuition-free all-day kindergarten is a huge chunk of money ($740,000) … Hanson cannot afford that.”
She said Hanson is hoping to find some ground with schools so they don’t have to tap into one-time funds to make the budget work.
“We don’t want to decimate our town departments, which we have just really built up to where they need to be,” she said.
Kowalski asked what percentage Hanson can handle. Green said Hackett is comfortable with 3 percent. Whitman was comfortable with the 3.67 percent figure the town had already received from the schools.
Whitman Selectman Dan Salvucci said that, while W-H doesn’t need to certify a budget as early as South Shore Tech, which has member towns that hold April town meetings, but said budget figures should be available sooner than they currently are.
He urged using the governor’s January budget numbers, which he said were “99 percent” solid and develop a budget to present to the towns in January or early February.
“The sooner we know the numbers, the better,” Salvucci said.
FitzGerald-Kemmett agreed with Salvucci’s suggestion, adding that, “something has jumped the tracks in the last couple of years.” In past years, selectmen received the budget in an email from the superintendent, who would come to a selectmen’s meeting to make a case for the budget they were presenting.
“I recognize COVID may have complicated that, from happening — I think it still could have happened virtually — but I would like to see us get back on track with an earlier conversation, more documentation, more engagement and partnership with the two boards of selectmen so that we aren’t making hasty decisions on the fly. That really isn’t a way for us to make budget decisions.”
While she said selectmen to a person value and respect schools, but that it is disrespectful to town employees to have to make important budget decisions last-minute.
LaMattina said he is looking for a more transparent process.
“If we’ve learned anything over the last few months of the school budget, it’s been active citizens that have notified us … of Circuit Breaker issues,” he said. “We now see a transportation issue that wasn’t addressed over a year and a half ago that, with better management, you’ll see a savings to both towns.”
He also reminded those at the meeting that he has called the FY ’23 school budget reckless because it is not a 3.94 percent overall increase.
“If you look at the amount of money that’s being tucked into this budget with one-time funds … dedicated last year and now have somehow changed … the process has jumped the tracks,” he said.
“We talk about partnerships, well, where is the partnership?”
LaMattina said he really does not see much partnership from the school district, pointing specifically to a remark at the last school committee meeting that Whitman Selectmen were trying to cut transportation to save a dollar, when they were merely advocating for better management of it.
“This budget is disastrous for the towns,” LaMattina said. “If they’re allowed to put this much one-time money in, by their business manager’s own accounting … serious deficit in 2025.”
He’s said the same thing for the last three or four years.
“If we’re talking partnerships, then be a good partner,” he said.
Weeks agreed that the towns are looking at a massive fiscal issue that won’t be solved this year and that it was important to have a civil conversation about it.
“I think there was some confusion around what was the purpose of this meeting,” Howard said. “I said [Szymaniak] and I would be at the meeting to listen … we are certainly willing to share and add perspective but we [were] not preparing any presentation or prepared to discuss what should or should not be in the budget.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett said she never thought there was an intention to negotiate any portion of the budget, so a full presence of the School Committee was not needed.
“There was never any notion that we’d be asking you guys to negotiate, on the spot, some budget thing,” she said. “That wasn’t ever a concept, so it was unnecessary to have a full School Committee there.”
Salvucci said he doesn’t understand why it is so difficult to provide a number of what they may need to run the school district, recalling past W-H budget presentations on a Saturday with all members of the towns Select boards and Finance committees attending.
Szymaniak said those weekend budget releases fizzled out because half the people didn’t show up. He said budget work begins when enrollment figures are available in October, but it’s the January governor’s budget that really sets the tone.
“I don’t know what Whitman and Hanson can afford because no one has given me the numbers, either,” he said. “So when I say it works both ways in a partnership — send me something.” He admitted that the budget uses one-time funds, but said it was the best that could be done.
“I have a solid office, now, financially,” he said. “If we need to have a joint meeting like this, I’m all for it … I can make a presentation.”
But he needs a commitment from both towns that people will attend. Weeks said a substantial amount of time had been spent on an email, and he wanted to see some process in place to get beyond the email conversation.
“We have to move forward,” he said.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said that, while there’s a lot of work to be done by all three partners, what she was hearing was a willingness to partner and to process.
“That gives me hope,” she said.