There were no changes made to the fiscal 2022 school budget and assessments at the School Committee meeting on Wednesday, March 7, despite a proposal from Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak that would trim the budget by three quarters of a million dollars.
The measures failed by a vote of 6-1-1 with member Dawn Byers voting no and Chairman Bob Hayes abstaining. Member Chris Scriven was absent.
Hayes said Monday the budget would be discussed again at a meeting on Wednesday, April 14. Budget votes must make up two thirds of the 10 total members, whether they are present or not.
“I can’t believe I’m sitting in this chair saying, ‘Maybe the School Committee can reduce my budget,’ because I’ve always fought to increase the budget,” Szymaniak said, noting that Whitman is still calculating a budget and Hanson would be looking at an override “no matter what.”
“I don’t think it would sit well for me to not share an idea of how to reduce our budget and have it potentially, if we don’t reduce it, fail at town meeting,” he said. “I feel very comfortable being able to do this.”
Szymaniak proposed using the funds over those three years to balance the remediation and intervention programs, some special education programs and Chromebooks — totaling $775,000 for a proposed budget of $56,797,579.40 — a 2.6 percent increase of the budget. Hanson’s assessment would be $12,646,117.72 and Whitman’s would be $16,104,903.22.
The new round of federal stimulus money can’t be used to pay teachers, but may be used for remediation of COVID-related expenses.
Without helping the towns, he could be faced with pink-slipping people and the goal this year is to avoid that.
Chairman Bob Hayes reported that legal counsel has opined that, once a budget is set, the figure cannot be increased — only decreased — as Hayes had described at the last meeting.
“The reason for it, is the budget has to be presented to the towns 45 days before Town Meeting,” he said. “That gives the town the opportunity to set their budget.”
The school budget makes up a larger portion of town budgets than other departments.
“There’s nothing that says at Town Meeting a budget line can’t be increased,” he said. “But it can also be decreased.”
Szymaniak said he has received a written copy of the opinion, and would share it with the committee.
He also noted Hanson’s move to place an override on the Town Meeting warrant and will hold a forum on the issue April 20.
“I think the budget we put forth through the School Committee supports the mission of our school, supports what we need for our kids for next year,’ Szymaniak said. “But I also feel it’s my job as the CEO and CFO, so to speak, of the district to say I’m going to be sitting on a little over $2 million of federal stimulus money.”
While he said he doesn’t have a specific number yet, but has been told it is more than two times the $1 million in ESSER II COVID funds.
“We will get this money, it’s just a matter of when,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable not giving you an opportunity to potentially reduce the operating budget to assist our two communities, when they’ve asked for some assistance in the district budget.”
He prepared information for the committee to use to reduce the budget, to give the towns a strictly level-serviced budget.
The Committee opted to reopen the budget discussion to do that.
The $2.1 million to $2.2 million in ESSER III funds must go over three fiscal years, Szymaniak said. It would not be prudent to use $2 million in one year, and he didn’t know if the state or federal governments would allow that in any case.
“We are not going to cut any services,” Szymaniak said. “We’re just reallocating who’s going to pay for the services — and the good people of the federal government are going to pay for the services.”
He said he would not make the suggestion if he didn’t think it would be successful.
School Committee member Dawn Byers said using the ESSER III funds for operating expenses “doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”
A Mass. Assoc. of School Committee program she participated in offered advice on ESSER III — plan accordingly, communicate wisely with your communities and discuss it among committees to “prepare for the cliff” in 2024 when it won’t be there any more.
She specifically expressed concern about using it for special education or Chromebooks, which will need replacing again.
Committee member Fred Small said Hanson is in a difficult place this year and anything the committee can do to help would be in everyone’s self-interest so the School Committee can go on to do long-term planning.
Szymaniak reported on the Monday, April 5 school reopening that if he were to assign a grade to the day’s experience it would be a B+ to an A-.
He said there were a “couple little hiccoughs here and there with transportation” between buses running late and traffic patterns a little off at certain schools.
“The best thing was getting into elementary classrooms,” he said, noting he managed to pop into the classes at most schools. “The teachers were ready to go, the kids were ready to go and I saw a lot of happy eyes.”
Tents have been pitched at the high school and inspected on Tuesday to allow students to eat lunch outside and space apart as well as for some classes to be held outdoors.
There was also a challenge with desks ordered for Whitman Middle School.
“Nothing is ever easy, but we got it done,” he said.
The desks the town of Whitman helped the district order with COVID funds are on back-order, according to Assistant Superintendent George Ferro, and will be delivered the first week of May. In the meantime, desks were obtained from Sacred Heart School, which is in the process of downsizing. Another 150 desks were borrowed from Stonehill.
Ferro said the desks will be kept when they are delivered in May because it is not known when Stonehill would need theirs back and there could still be social distancing protocols in place for September.
“The not-so-great part about opening is I have three positive [COVID] cases at the high school right now from a social interaction last week,” Szymaniak said. “In turn, I have 34 close contacts [in quarantine] out of that social interaction.”
There are four positive cases and seven close contacts at Whitman Middle.
“Nothing has been transmitted through school,” he said.
The DPH contact tracing guidelines have not changed, despite social distances have closed to three feet, which has upset some parents. But Szymaniak defended school nurses who were doing their jobs.
“To get mad at my nurses, to yell at my nurses, to threaten or to have us have to call the police on you, is not appropriate,” he said, noting it had happened that day.
Superintendents are calling DESE to ask them to work with DPH to adjust the distances involved in the contact tracing protocols.
There have been some behavior problems due to the social-emotional challenges of the past year.