Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak reported which personnel cuts would be made within the fiscal 2020 budget during the Wednesday, June 12 School Committee meeting.
“There’s been some questions about where we ended up in terms of staffing,” Szymaniak said. There were 19 positions cut as well $292,000 cut from budget items such as supplies, legal costs and other areas. Some others were moved to other areas.
The personnel cuts include; a central office accountant, a facilities building use coordinator, the technology director, six paraprofessionals — none involved in one-to-one individual education plans, a high school business teacher, a high school science teacher, a science teacher at Hanson Middle School, a grade teacher at Indian Head, a grade teacher at Duval, two grade teachers at Conley, and a duty aide at each elementary school. A part-time music teacher who did grade five band was also cut.
“We also eliminated foreign language at the middle schools because of equity issues,” Szymaniak said. “We recycled those positions into three elementary adjustment counselors because we had to work in our social-emotional need.”
He explained the district had been inequitable in how it offered middle school foreign language.
“Before the state came at us and said there’s an issue of equity there, we recycled that with the hopes of looking at a better budget in the future — putting together a solid foreign language program, either six through 12 or, in our vision K to 12,” Szymaniak said.
He said class size was not severely impacted, but there will be a student population bubble in the fourth grade at Indian Head and the fifth grade at Conley and Duval.
Szymaniak said he is “cautiously optimistic” about returning some classroom teachers when the state budget is finalized and the fiscal 2019 budget is closed out, but is not looking to resolve any other budget issues.
School committee member Fred Small asked if a budget meeting between the committee, town administrators, selectmen and finance boards had yet been scheduled.
That meeting was slated for 7 p.m., Monday, July 22.
“We’re going to take a look at the whole budget, going a little bit backwards for comparison and see what our increases might be,” Chairman Bob Hayes said. “Maybe get a little bit better forecast for the towns before they get into their town meetings or special town meetings.”
Small said his vision is also to determine what the committee wants to see, in the event there is an override, to restore services and to enhance services the district should be providing.
“I really think we have to address our short-comings and the only way we’re going to do it is to ask the public,” Small said.
School Committee member Christopher Howard suggested a three-year look forward so the towns understand what lies ahead. Szymaniak said union and bus contracts have two more years left, which could help with that process. School Committee member Dan Cullity advocated a five-year approach.
Where money would go from an expected operational override in the fall for Whitman remains a question, Szymaniak said, adding Hanson has said nothing about any plans for an override.
Szymaniak also reported that he has received a letter from the Whitman DPW, which stated the high school’s water and sewer meters have been misread since the school opened — and $307,000 is owed by the district.
“They apologized for the error,” he said. “My problem, outside of the letter I got yesterday, is I have no budget projection on what we use for water in this building now.”
He had not consulted legal counsel yet, but had Business Director Christine Suckow call the district’s insurance company “just because.”
School Committee member Alexandra Taylor said it is her understanding that the problem is town-wide in Whitman due to old meters. Whitman has begun the process of replacing water meters this month.
Small said the sewer portion should not be a problem because of the high school’s graywater system.
The committee heard an overview of what constitutes unfunded and underfunded state mandates from Ben Tafoya, director of the Division of Local Mandates with the State Auditor’s Office.
“The Division of Local Mandates was actually created by the voters when they passed Proposition 2 ½ in 1980,” Tafoya said. “The law also said that the state could not impose unfunded mandates on our cities and towns and created our division to help guide the state auditor in determining what was or what wasn’t an unfunded mandate.”
Several hundred requests for review of potential unfunded mandates have been received since the 1980s, but Tafoya said the number has been decreasing in recent years.
“The good news is since the founding of our office, we have been able to help municipalities claim over $350 million in funding for various activities that were found to be unfunded mandates,” he said.
Cullity asked how the school district could file a request for review of some of the unfunded mandates straining the WHRSD budgets.
Tafoya said a letter should be filed with State Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office at the statehouse, advising that a single letter from the School Committee detailing the issues — or from town administrators, boards of selectmen or the superintendent of schools.
“If it’s from the School Committee it has to be an official act that is documented in the public record,” Tafoya said.
State laws passed after Jan. 1, 1981 must have cost implications for municipalities accepted by the city or town or the commonwealth supplies funding to make compliance possible, according to Tafoya.
“These were things that weren’t optional … and they represented a significant expense,” he said.
In 2017, portions of the early voting law were determined to include an unfunded mandate, necessitating reimbursements to towns for the hours outside normal voting hours for towns. In 2012, portions of the McKinney-Vento homeless transportation requirement were determined to be an unfunded mandate, with the legislature partially reimbursing cities and towns — $9 million for fiscal 2019.
Exceptions over the years have included the imposition of “incidental administrative expense” involved in the municipalities complying with the mandate as a condition of receiving state aid, or when towns have the option of participating in a program or not.
Regional school transportation is not considered an unfunded mandate because it was a requirement imposed on regional school districts prior to 1981, Tafoya said.
“But we all understand that underfunding of that kind of requirement has a substantial impact on the regional school districts in our Commonwealth,” he said.
Small, who had arranged for Tafoya’s visit, questioned special education transportation reimbursements. That expense, Tafoya said is the largest single category of the $785 million spent on school transportation by all state school districts.
School Committee member Dawn Byer also questioned special education reimbursement, particularly whether it met the requirement under Mass. General Law to be considered an unfunded mandate.
“The difficulty with that is that it’s a requirement that pre-dates 1981,” Tafoya said. “That would be its exemption from the local mandate law.”
“Where that is supposed to be funded, I’d like to ask if there’s anything that you can do to help out this region,” said Taylor.
Tafoya said the division has been informing the legislature, regional school district and other stakeholder groups about a report issued in 2017 on the issue, “To try to remind people that these expenses are out there, they’re rising faster than school aid or taxes are coming in and the reimbursement accounts are significantly underfunded.”
He pledged that the division would continue to do that.