The School Committee, on Wednesday, March 10, conducted a line-by-line review of the proposed fiscal 2022 school budget.
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said the $57,572,579 budget — down by about $300,000 after the spending plan was examined line by line.
Another meeting was set for Wednesday, March 17 to vote on the budget and assessments for the towns.
“That’s a different number than was presented two weeks ago,” Szymaniak said. “It’s lower. We made some adjustments, we found some errors in the line items. … This has been a really challenging year, especially in personnel, because we have people all over the district working remotely, we’ve hired a lot of folks and we had some double numbers.”
He said he feels very comfortable with the new number, which is more accurate.
Szymaniak also reported that the W-H Regional School District is set to reopen Monday, April 5, a reentry plan the School Committee voted to accept.
Wednesdays would be half-day instruction with the remainder of the day set aside for teachers’ professional development, which the committee approved 9-0-1, with Hayes abstaining because his daughter teaches in the district.
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said the budget line items would be presented for discussion as they are at Town Meeting, with committee members asked to place holds on lines they wanted to question or discuss.
Holds for questions were placed on some costs and reviewed when the committee reconvened for a special meeting on Monday, March 15.
Those holds included: teacher salaries; elementary instructional materials; general supplies; photocopier supplies; SPED teacher, SPED paraprofessional and speech salaries; guidance salaries; library supplies; athletics salaries, supplies and equipment maintenance; graduation expenses; co-curricular acting salaries; central office business/finance clerical salary; tuition to other schools; school choice; tech services salaries; health insurance; SPED tuition to other schools; district liaisons and police detail expenses; transportation contracted services; facilities contracted services building maintenance, emergency repairs and supplies; and other supplies at various schools.
Member Dawn Byers sought explanation of per-pupil spending and how many teachers are funded by each school’s salary line, class sizes and whether the increase account for steps, lanes and any salary increases that might be agreed to during negotiations.
“We have a lot of money that we’re spending and we need to be sure we’re spending it wisely that we’re targeting these dollars where we should,” she said.
Szymaniak explained that teacher salaries could not be discussed in detail due to contract negotiations, but that School Committee members could discuss them in executive session. He did say that steps and lanes are calculated in as well as an earmark for contract negotiations.
He said that, while still low, per-pupil expenditures have increased in recent years.
“Any time I saw anything kind of change, just looking to understand the why behind it … [I’m] just looking to understand the reason for the bump,” Member Christopher Howard said of his questioning special education costs and salary lines.
Director of Student Services Lauren Mathieson said the TLC program, which reintegrates students to classes following any hospitalizations, as well as a speech program at Indian Head. The number of behavioral specialists, speech therapists and paraprofessionals has also fluctuated at schools.
Byer’s questions on numbers of children in the TLC program drew a caution about privacy from Szymaniak and Hayes.
“Students have a right to confidentiality,” Szymaniak said. “By saying how many, that could potentially put their names out there.”
“I believe that we hire the superintendent because he has a license and we have to have some sort of trust,” Hayes said. “We hired the SPED director and [Assistant Superintendent] George [Ferro] for the same reason. … We have to have some sort of faith in what goes on with our leaders.”
Member David Forth asked why salary lines were divided by school rather than grade level. Business manager John Tuffy said it was largely past practice.
Szymaniak said general supplies are building-specific and needs based.
Copy costs have decreased with technology use, but some of the funds in the line can be used for technology costs as well as paper copying.
School Committee members also asked for specifics about the “other expenses” line for WHRHS, which Principal Dr. Christopher Jones said includes Community Evening School and the Ingenuity program, association memberships for teachers.
Howard suggested that, in future any way of providing more detail than the heading “other expenses” would be better.
“We’ll probably ask the same questions in another year when we see other expenses,” Howard said.
An increase from the $17,000 budgeted for the 2019 graduation and $30,000 in the proposed budget is intended to cover added expenses, such as a sound system, for holding graduation outside.
Assistant Superintendent George Ferro said the district is going to be using student desk configurations that permit the proper social distancing for student safety. He said the purchase will use internal funds, but noted school officials are working with the towns to determine if there is more COVID relief funding available to reimburse the schools.
Szymaniak said the timing is more an issue than whether the funding would be available.
He also sought to clarify state information on reopening.
“The media is misquoting the Commissioner [of Education Jeff Riley] right now,” said Szymaniak, who described the result as a lot of phone calls from “really nervous parents.”
Commissioner Riley said on Tuesday, March 9 that he will not be accepting asynchronus learning time from hybrid models or remote models.
“People who are in our remote program automatically said, ‘Well, the commissioner said no remote is allowed,’” Szymaniak said. “We have a solid remote program, which is acceptable by DESE in our return. On April 5, as of today … all my parents who have wanted to stay remote, stay remote. All my parents who wanted to move from remote to in-person have notified their principals. All my parents who wanted to move from hybrid to remote should have notified their principals.”
He said the K-12 remote program is in full swing. In K-8, is the classrooms they have had since September and nine through 12 is live-streaming.
“It’s OK, nobody has to worry about it — nobody needs to panic,” he said. “You can stay remote if you choose to stay remote.”
Student representative Anna Flynn noted that the prospect of returning to schools has “crossed the minds of everyone” in the W-H community.
“I have heard from many of my classmates that they’re nervous that people will not follow through with the respectful way to wear their face masks and [observe] the rules of social distancing,” the junior class member said. She reported that students have expressed to her that they want to see stronger consequences for improper mask wearing.
Flynn also noted concerns about how lunch periods will be conducted.
Ferro said lunches will be six feet apart, but will be using different areas.
“These questions have caused students I know to opt out of the full return and remain in full remote [instruction] online,” she said. “I believe that W-H has the knowledge and consideration for what the results will be when students return in April.”
School Committee member Christopher Howard said he appreciated Flynn’s sharing the student perspective with them.
“I think, for all of us, we’re a little disconnected — moreso that we’d like to be at this point — so I appreciate you coming to these meetings and sharing what’s going on,” he said.
School Committee member Dawn Byers, who is also the mother of two WHRHS students, also thanked Flynn.
“The students’ voice is important for us to hear, as well as [for] the students to hear you representing them,” Byers said.
Another challenge will be making sure the district gets all its ChromeBooks back to be used in classrooms, while students staying with remote learning able to retain the devices for at-home learning.