The School Committee approved a fiscal 2024 budget of $60,638,657.69 an increase of 3.67 percent over last year, on Wednesday, March 15. The spending plan adds foreign language and STEM/robotics programs to a level-services package.
Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak had presented the level-service budget of $60,485,257.69 – an increase of 3.41 percent over last year – but said his recommendation was that $153,400 for foreign language Option 1 and a STEM/robotics curriculum be added to it.
The foreign language option costs $98,400, which would add $60,083.04, or .36-percent increase for Whitman, and $38,316.96, or a .29-percent increase in grades six through eight and to add robotics in K-grade eight curricula.
STEM and robotics costs $55,000, which would add $33,583 – or a .2 percent-increase to Whitman’s budget and $21,417 to Hanson’s budget for 1.6 percent increase to Hanson.
“At minimum, I recommend this committee sets the budget at $60,485,257.69 – or a 3.41-percent increase – but seriously consider adding foreign language Option 1 and STEM and robotics, which adds $153,400, or adjusting the budget to $60,638,675.69, to put us at an overall increase of 3.67 percent over last year,” Szymaniak said. He said the committee has heard from students and curriculum administrators about how students are progressing.
“I think they need opportunities as presented, but at minimum stick with our level service and a 3.41-percent increase to our budget,” he said. “I felt I need the committee to know where we’re at. … You’ve been able to see what the towns have presented us and, I appreciate what they’ve presented us.”
“My fear is the towns just don’t have the funds,” said member Fred Small, noting that Whitman had penciled in a 5-percent increase in the assessment. “I just don’t know where they come up with the money to pay.”
Hanson’s interim Town Accountant’s letter indicated even a 3-percent increase would leave them with deficits, Small said.
“One of two things happens, it’ll get shot down on the Town Hall floor, or their going to divvy is up and push it on an override,” he said. “My opinion is, if it comes to an override I’’d rather see us hold firm.”
Vice Chair Christopher Scriven said he came to discuss and vote on assessments as it stated in the agenda, to have the extra consideration of language and STEM/robotics program costs at that point made him pause and need time to consider it.
“I don’t know if I’m really ready to consider this,” Scriven said.
Chair Howard said a budget had to be voted that night.
“I’ve presented a budget with those two options in February, and they’ve been there,” Szymaniak said. “It’s something the committee doesn’t have to approve.”
He said district counsel Andrew Waugh recommended the budget not be increased after March 15.
Small, while supporting the students supported the original level-service budget minus the lanquages and STEM/robotics because the towns’ fiscal positions are so tenuous.
Member Beth Stafford stressed that, while the towns are facing financial challenges, the committee and school district are not asking the towns to foot the bill for the data breach they had last summer.
“This is level-service,” she said. “Level service is not always the greatest thing, folks [it] means you don’t go anywhere further.”
She also noted the familiar territory of the strain between town and school committee roles.
“This is the conversation that always comes up,” Stafford said. “And the conversation is, ‘What’s our job here on the School Committee?’ Yes, we represent the towns, but our main focus is the students and what we have to do.”
Member Dawn Byers noted the budget doesn’t address start times or strengthening the school-community connection, but while they could do better, she said the budget reflects the real cost of the district’s needs for education. She also argued that an increase of 3.41 percent is below what both towns have certified with the DOR as their annual municipal revenue growth factor – 4 percent for Whitman and 3.9 percent for Hanson this year.
Whitman Selectmen Shawn Kain and Justin Evans also weighed in on the school budget.
Kain said the hold-harmless situation created the “tragic dilemma” for the towns.
“Because we’ve been in hold-harmless for so long, we aren’t getting enough state aid t sustain the budget,” he said. “That’s the answer. That’s it.”
The situation frequently pits town departments and the school district against each other at Town Meeting, often forcing a decision between funding other town departments or seeking an override.
Evans said the 4.3 percent projected municipal revenue growth comes to a bit less than $1.7 million of total growth to spend everywhere.
Between the level-service plus two additional programs for the schools and the Plymouth County retirement assessment of about $300,000, all that money is used, he said.
Finance Committee member Kathlen Ottina, however urged the committee to hold fast to Szymaniak’s recommendation.
“It’s early in the budget process,” she said. “We still have budgets to be heard at the Finance Committee level and, if you don’t ask for it tonight, you can’t ask for it later.”
Member David Forth advocated for the language and technology programs to prepare for the long-term needs of educating students for the future.
“If we don’t add services now, we kick the can once again for level services,” he said. “What are we doing next year? … We really need to think about the long-term aspect.”
Howard said figures reviewed the five-year in September that included a budget with a 3.13 percent increase for level services.
“Our students are not getting anything more with this budget,” member Hillary Kniffen said. “A level-serviced budget is the best that we have. The cost of educating children has increased.”
“I will not accept that there’s a surprise when we start talking about some of these numbers because we’ve talked about them for over a year,” he said.
Szymaniak said the South Shore Superintendent’s group met with legislators and informed them how problematic a 14-percent increase in out-of-district special education tuition was, but he has not included that increase in the FY ’24 budget.
The final figure is still to be determined, he said.
“They’re bringing some of those thoughts back to the House,” Szymaniak said. “However, if nothing is done, we will receive tuition bills this summer, and we’re obligated to pay them.”
The committee, last year, decided to keep a one-year Circuit Breaker allowance in reserve to either apply to the following fiscal year’s budget or to use it for extenuating costs or circumstances.
A portion it is being used for the budget and a portion will be used for the latter, using them once they are appropriated in October to pay off the debt for that increase.
“I’m hoping it won’t be 14 percent, but I doubt that it will be the 3 percent that I allocated within the budget,” Szymaniak said. “Best case, it may be 7 [percent].”
If Circuit Breaker is not needed, it will go toward the FY ’25 budget next year.
Where excess and deficiency is concerned, $1.718 million is in that account, and the district will have to access $605,000 to pay invoices in excess of our insurance coverage to make the district whole in the wake of the computer and data breach it sustained in July 2022.
“We’re not going to the towns to make us whole from that breach,” he said. “The transfer will leave $1.13 million in E&D for FY ’24.”
Whitman has made its town budget available to the district and information has been received from Hanson regarding the funds they have earmarked for the district.
Member Steve Bois agreed with Howard that the committee has had all the numbers and criteria for the budget.
“We can do better,” she said. “It’s not in this budget right now, but we have room for improvement.”
Hanson OKs task force on trash costs
HANSON – The Select Board voted, on Tuesday, March 14 to establish a task force to determine the direction for operations at the Transfer Station and the most economical way to dispose of trash, following a presentation by and discussion with Health Board Chair Melissa Pinnetti.
Pinnetti, Town Accountant Eric Kinscherf and Finance Committee Chair Michael Dugan, who have already been working on the issue, were officially named members of the task force.
Citing cost considerations and quotes from hauling firms, Pinnetti said there is a need to make the transfer station’s vital operation for residents more economical, especially for seniors, who cannot afford private trash hauling services. While no exact length of the task force’s work has been made, she said the hope is to have something prepared for the special Town Meeting in October.
“Significantly more than half the town does not utilize the transfer station, so that means they are paying for their trash to be handled some other way,” she said. “They are also paying through their taxes for funding the transfer station.”
Select Board member Joe Weeks pointed to the “substantial amount of folks in this town that are on fixed income and depend heavily on the transfer station.”
“What we’re trying to do right now is be able to gather other data to make informed decisions about what has the operational cost [been] over the past five to 10 years, and how can we use that to project into the future?” he said. “This is protecting the citizens, but also being able to stretch the tax dollar as far as we can possibly go and [use] it in a meaningful way.”
Weeks said the task force is necessary to allow town officials to hone in and try to figure out what kind of recommendations can be made to the town.
“We kind of need to get everybody’s input on this,” he said. “We want the town to be part of it.”
Select Board Chair Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett said she liked the “cross-pollination” of the different groups working together.
“Everybody’s coming together, looking at what’s best for the town and cohesively making a recommendation, and I just love that,” she said.
Pinnetti was asked in September to have the Board of Health to outline ways to address long-standing budget issues at the transfer station. The town has issued 1,800 stickers, for a fee, to residents who use the transfer station.
“I know more about trash and transfer stations now than I thought I would,” she said in outlining what has been done in the interim and an article being presented to Town Meeting.
The contract for hauling and disposal of refuse from the transfer station had been expired for quite some time, Pinnetti said, causing recycling expenses to go in flux with the market since China stopped accepting bulk recycling shipments.
“We may have been paying much more than we needed to over those many years,” she said, adding that she and Health Agent Gil Amado had met with Waste Management officials about obtaining a quote for their services both at the transfer station and for town-wide pickup. She also requested a quote from E.L. Harvey out of Westborough, which now services the transfer station.
She called comparing the two quotes “eye-opening.”
The Health Board plans to enter a one-year contract with Harvey, which came in “substantially lower” with their quote than Waste Management. The cost for the rental compactors alone was about five times higher for WM than for Harvey, she said.
There has been a 23-percent increase in hauling and a 25-percent increase in the cost for equipment rental at the transfer station operating expenses from 2016 to now, according to Pinnetti. But it has been 116-percent higher for tipping fee for mainstream waste per ton in addition to the cost of getting rid of recycling.
“The overwhelming cost of operations comes from our hauling and municipal disposal,” Pinnetti said. “We started discussing in our meetings how we could tonnage of mainstream waste, which included the decision to open the Swap Shop, which seems to be a hit.”
Pinnetti said she hopes to see more residents “shopping” the Swap Shop as the weather improves in the spring.
“Kudos on that, Melissa,”FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “That was a great idea, and our thanks to the board for that, because it showed great initiative.”
Pinnetti also credited transfer station attendants for doing a great job in trying to deal with the frustrations involved in starting any such project from scratch, and said the Board of Health is looking to bringing on some volunteers to help run the Swap Shop on a long-term basis and has discussed grant opportunites with Claire Galkowski, executive director of the South Shore Recycling Cooperative to help improve transfer station operations, as well.
Pinnetti said he has also been reviewing the 2014 Town Meeting article that established the transfer station enterprise fund and revenue trends since.
“The wheels on this are going to turn very slowly,” said Dugan. “I’m not saying this will be the end result, but if this was something where you moved to curbside for the entire town, this is about a two-year project.”
Costs for any new equipment, including additional trucks and drivers a compnay might need, among other considerations would mean a longer ramp-up.
“Nothing is going to change today,” Dugan said. “Nothing is going to change a year from now. Quite frankly, we’re looking at a budget that is projecting $200,000 in revenue generated to support $420,000 worth of expenses.”
He said the town would be better off looking to other options, adding it may end up back in the same place, but it’s time to work on finding out what can and can’t be done, rather than just keep filling the revenue gap.
“At this point, because of the dynamics changing so significantly that really couldn’t have ever been predicted … I think it would be irresponsible for us not to explore other options,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “I want to be super-clear that we will at all times take into consideration that we have employees working there and think about what their long-term impact would be and how we might best serve them, as well.”
Joe Weeks lauded the work Pinnetti, Dugan and Kinscherf have already done and sought to make clear that the presentation was in the interest of transparency, so the public can become involved and help brainstorm new ideas.
Select Board member Jim Hickey also pointed to the fuel costs, as diesel has remained high even while gas prices have come down a bit. He also asked for a ballpark figure for curbside pickup.
WM provided a quote of $1.5 million for the 3,800 homes using the service, based on comparable towns, but that a more specific figure would take a couple weeks to calculate.
Resident Frank Milisi said that estimate is comparable to what residents are paying for private hauling, about $112 per quarter, right now. He also said a 20-percent fuel surcharge had been added to the residential customers’ bills last quarter.
“I really want to emphasize that, whatever happens has to be affordable for those people that are not using curbside pickup,” Select Board member Ann Rein said. “And there’s a reason why. I don’t use curbside. I use the transfer station and I know many people my age and older who do the same thing, because it’s too expensive to have curbside pickup for us. … I’m afraid about my neighbors.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett said she, also, is a transfer station user and loves that trash doesn’t have to sit around waiting to be picked up.
“But what I’ve heard these guys say, is they’re going to try to do a Herculean task to figure out what’s in the best interests of the entire town of Hanson,” she said. “We’ve got competing needs, we need cost-efficiencies, we want convenience, we don’t want to bankrupt anybody.”
In other business, Town Administrator Lisa Green updated the board on the progress Building Inspector Kerry Glass was making in obtaining the licensing credentials required by the state.
“He has been taking courses and has taken a couple of exams,” Green said. “I’m not sure if he’s found out whether he’s passed them or not.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett asked for a more through update at next week’s meeting.
Glass, who was on vacation, left a list of projects in town he has been overseeing with Green, who read them to the board.
Timing votes on WMS project
WHITMAN – A decision on how to proceed with the timing and logistics of a special Town Meeting and ballot question on the Whitman Middle School project has been delayed to Tuesday, March 21, so Town Clerk Dawn Varley can attend a Select Board meeting to answer some lingering questions on how the board might proceed.
Town Administrator Mary Beth Carter, at the Select Board’s Tuesday, March 7, meeting reported that delaying the Town Meeting and election for the project would add three months to the schedule and .5 percent monthly to the cost.
“Our last meeting was basically a brain-storming session of what this board felt … we needed to question a bit and find some solutions, and I don’t think, at any point any decisions were made,” Select Board Chair Randy LaMattina said, noting that Carter had researched the issue of timing the special Town Meeting and ballot initiative for the project. “Whether or not we get a date this evening – I think we definitely should by the next meeting.”
Carter said she met with Project Manager John Bates to discuss the timeline and the difference waiting to hold the ballot question to the March Presidential Primary Election might make.
“The WMS project is a massive project,” she said. It would be the largest municipal building project to date in Whitman, with an estimated borrowing cost to the town of about $72 million. The added .5 percent monthy cost from a delay could come to and additional $1,530,000.
The total cost of the project is estimated to be $127 million, with the Massachusetts School Building Authority funding about $55 million.
While a portion of the $1.5 million escalation cost would also be partially reimbursed by MSBA, the town would still have to pay more than $800,000 the cost of delay.
Carter said that waiting until the Presidential Primary vote would ensure the question that would be seen by the most voters.
“I think we’ve all seen that per the last major single-ballot vote we had was on the marijuana issue that fell on a holiday time – we did not have an extensive turnout for that,” LaMattina said.
The WMS Town Meeting was initially scheduled around Thanksgiving with a ballot question soon after.
“I personally would hate to see a borrowing and funding vote, that would be historical for this town, fall with minimum turnout,” he said.
“It makes all kinds of sense to try to attract the greatest number of people because it is an expensive item and it is such an important item for the parents of the town,” Select Board member Dr. Carl Kowalski agreed.
Select Board member Justin Evans, who had initially suggested tying the ballot question to the Presidential Primary date, said the $800,000 impact of such a delay is “a little hard for me to swallow,” however.
“I agree we should try to get as high turnout as possible, but to do so and really raise the cost of the project on the taxpayers – I don’t know if that’s the right move for this board,” Evans said.
Vice Chair Dan Salvucci, maintained that it is more important to give the most people possible a chance to voice their opinion and vote.
“My feeling is this project has been out there for a couple of years now, and to be able to move forward as quickly as possible, is not irresponsible,” he said, agreeing with LaMattina that holding a vote or Town Meeting during the holidays is not a good idea.
“You’re trying to fight a Thanksgiving turkey, Santa Claus, etc.,” he said.
But he suggested a January 2024 special Town Meeting followed by a ballot initiative in February would bring out people interested in the project, good and bad.
“If it can be earlier for the ballot vote, that’s fine, too,” Small said.
Building Committee member John Galvin asked for clarification on the necessary timeline for voting on the project, noting that an Oct. 26 MSBA meeting is being looked to for its final vote, but said there is no reason the Select Board has to wait for that date.
“That [MSBA] meeting is more or less a ceremonial approval to move forward to the vote,” he said, suggesting that the Town Meeting could be as early as Oct. 30.
Galvin also asked what the required time span is between Town Meeting and a ballot initiative.
Former Town Administrator Frank Lynam said 35 days are required between the two votes. While the annual Town Meeting and elections are set in the by-law.
“They are considered one event,” he said. “The meeting and the election comprise one event, and that’s why there isn’t a further expanse of time between the two,” he said. Otherwise, the Town Clerk must be given 35 days to present the ballot.
“There is no negotiating that,” Lynam said.
LaMattina noted that the building committee is also working on a deadline. They have 980 days to get it on a ballot from the time MSBA invites a community into the process.
The Whitman project already has had to file an extention because the Building Committee had to seek an RFS for the OPM twice. A January special Town Meeting, meanwhile, would require a primary day ballot anyway.
Another wrinkle, as Galvin brought to the board’s attention that only the list of candidates for president are included on a Presidential Primary ballot.
“You would need a second ballot at that election,” he said.
“I see that as an issue,” Salvucci said.
Evans suggested asking the Town Clerk’s office about whether or not they can even process two ballots simultaneously. Carter said the town consulted the Secretary of the Commonwealth said including a second ballot is not a problem at all.
Evans said a high early vote, which is used in Presidential primaries and general elections also presents a separate problem.
“I think for the turnout, it’s worthwhile and, for logistical, I’d think the timeline is going to be there anyway,” Evans said.
“You may want to think about that before you take a vote, because that will be a separatee cost,” Galvin said.
Before the meeting got down to business, Kowalski thanked Lynam for serving as interim town administrator,
“We have had the good fortune of having our former town administrator serve as the interim town administrator and as an assistant to Mary Beth in this transition period,” Kowalski said. “On behalf of the board, even though they don’t know I’m doing this, I’d like to thank Frank for doing so. As we all know, Frank was a town administrator for a very long time – a lot of good things happened while he was.”
He ticked off accomplishments such as a comparatively low tax rate, a new police station, improvements to the Town Hall and fire station and a new high school among them.
“But this interim period has been a tricky one and Frank jumped into it,” he said. “He didn’t have to. He was home with his grandchildren, and I just wanted to say thank you [to] him.”
Then Kowalski, leaning on his noted sense of humor, presented Lynam with a gift of cookies made by Leslie Diorio, bearing the “town seal” – an illustration of the marine animal balancing a ball bearing the official town seal, on its nose.
“One of the more interesting things we had happen during [Frank’s] tenure, was the cookie fiasco,” Kowalski said.
The design referenced an incident earlier in the year, when she had made cookies with the official Town Seal as refreshments for a joint Select Board/Finance Committee, which led to a complaint filed by the Keeper of the Seal for misuse of the official seal. A second cookie design featured the words, “Thanks for leading our circus.”
“You’ve done a great service to the town,” LaMattina said about Lynam.
Carter also thanked him “You stepped in, and I know you didn’t think you’d be here this long, it did take us a bit, but I think the wait was worth it and I think things worked out great for the town and I personally wanted to thank you.”
“And I really want to thank you,” Carter added. “I’ll never be a Frank Lynam, but I’ll do my best.”
W-H reviews school start times
W-H school district officials presented a potential plan for how school start times are viewed, among other transportation topics, during their Wednesday, Feb. 15 meeting.
Start Times were changed in 2012 to help trim budget costs, in an effort to save money on transportation costs in a tough budget year. It was only intended as a temporary measure but has not been changed in 11 years, Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak said.
One option to changing start times again – moving middle school starts earlier, followed by high school and elementary school starts – would have required 13 buses and was rejected
“First of all, I can’t do it in the middle of the contract, secondly … my transportation director said, ‘You’re never going to get the drivers,’” Szymaniak Said. “First Student does not have those drivers right now.”
Of three other scenarios, would cost $10,000 per day more.
Despite some initial confusion over past discussions of the start time issue and agenda language, School Committee Chair Christopher Howard said no vote would be taken at the meeting.
The members of the Student Advisory Council, speaking during the meeting’s public forum, said their peers in W-H schools, particularly at Conley and Indian Head Elementary schools, a majority supported starting earlier – even before 7 a.m. – concerned that starting later would interfere with school activities.
Noah Roberts said the Council members had visited students at the elementary and middle schools to survey them on a number of topics, which they said they would report to the committee at another time.
“[Conley students] felt that having an earlier start time would allow them to do more social activities and participate in their schedule more,” he said. But Hanson students, were more split. The Council found that the students would love to participate in more after-school activities, especially those curtailed by COVID.
A proposed change – out of a range of options discussed by the School Committee – would change the high school day to 7:20 a.m. to 1:55 p.m.; middle schools to 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Conley to 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Duval to 9:35 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. and Indian Head to 9:05 a.m. to 3:10 p.m. with no additional cost to the district.
Before the start time change, the high school started classes at 7:25 a.m., elementary grades at about 8:30 a.m., with middle schools beginning their day at 7:45 a.m. The district ran 10 more buses at that time.
A past concern of Hanson parents that students were dealing with extremely long bus rides, it became apparent that drivers on some routes were stopping at every house instead of designated stops.
Szymaniak said that has been stopped.
“We started looking at different drivers who were accommodating different people,” he said, noting the school district did not have its own tracking devices to get a handle on it sooner. “I don’t want to throw it on First Student, but the driver shortage has impacted who we have. … If the kids say, ‘drop me off here,’ they’re dropping them off there.”
Szymaniak said he believes that having the right technology would stop it completely.
The current First Student contract stipulates that the district assigns the bus stops.
“But no parent’s going complain that their kid gets picked up at their house,” Committee member Glen DiGravio said. “That’s why it’s never been brought up.”
He admitted with a laugh that he complains about the time on the bus all the time, but is also happy his kid gets picked up at his house.
Another challenge to any change in start times is the need to align the elementary schools to a 6.5-hour day that the fifth-graders in Hanson have, Szymaniak said.
Committee member Dawn Byers said that is the most important aspect of the start time discussions.
“It involves zero expense increase,” she said last week. “Moving the high school start time also involves zero expense increase.”
Szymaniak said during the Feb. 15 meeting that the added costs came into play in attempting to align elementary start times.
He said that, while students at the high school want later start times, but many they have also said they don’t want to leave for the day past 2 p.m. Athletic Director Bob Rodgers has assured Szymaniak that, if high school students get out by 2:30 p.m., he can get student-athletes to games.
Committee member Fred Small asked if any start time change would have to be bargained with the teacher’s union. Szymaniak said it would be a bargaining point.
“What’s important is that we talk about the facts vs. the myths,” Byers said. “Talk about science, and the wellness of students.”
She said the issue included considerations of social-emotional wellness as well as physical health and nutrition.
“If the science says they should start later, then we should go with science before we go with the kids saying what they want,” Vice Chair Christopher Scriven said, noting he did not want to discourage students from voicing their concerns.
“We’re focused on the start times, but the CDC recommends ‘reasonable curfews’ at night for students,” said Committee member Michelle Bourgelas. “What time are these kids going to bed? … High school kids can be parented.” She also expressed concern that, in the interest of ending the high school day in time for sports, other extra-curricular activities lose out.
Any school start time has to be bargained with the teacher unions, Szymaniak said, but the School Committee first has to make a decision on a change.
“What no one wants to admit is that we are hurting kids,” Byers said, advocating an 8:30 high school start time student health and well-being. “We are intentional about that … the 7:05 a.m. [high school start] can’t continue.”
Committee member Hillary Kniffen said elementary school kids who do extra-curricular activities are not being included in the conversation.
“Might I remind everybody we are dealing with children,” she said “The kids who will be in fifth-grade next year, were in first grade when the world shut down [during the pandemic]. These are kids who have not had the opportunity to develop responsibility and social skills and things [that other] children had because they’re older.”
She advocated educating all families on the potential effects of school start times, because the high school students seem to be the primary focus of concern.
“I am 100-percent in favor of getting healthy start times for all of our students, but I think we have seen some tunnel vision and we need to … get out there with the solutions to this problem,” Kniffen said.
DiGravio agreed that there is no ideal solution, but argued if parents send their kids to bed early enough to get eight hours of sleep the start times are workable, noting the average start time in the state is 7:50 and in the country at 8 a.m. For high schoolers.
“It’s a lot of money and a lot of moving parts for 20 emails,” he said. “How many people truly want this besides voices we hear here? I’m not sold.”
Start time issue aside, Committee member David Forth said it was good to see the 20 to 30 emails from parents on the issue.
“Since I’ve been on the School Committee, there’s very few instances that I’ve seen parental outreach that much,” he said. “They took the time to reach out to the School Committee and voice their opinion. It’s nice to have their input, it’s nice to have student input, and these are things we haven’t had much of in the past.”
Howard calculated that, if the latest they want an elementary school to let out is 3:30 p.m., then the earliest they can open is 8 a.m.
“We know the early part,” he said. “There’s certainly a concern about starting school too early, but we need to understand the back-end.”
He concluded the committee needs more information from more people.
Parent Chris George of Whitman stressed that circadian body rhythms were the concern for healthy students, noting while school events in the lower grades start before 7 p.m., high school events are another matter.
“We have school-sponsored, high school events that go until late at night,” he said. “If we’re not willing to move the start time, are we prepared to tell Bob Rodgers he can’t have a 7:30 p.m. Basketball game? … Those are the things that you need to start doing if you can adjust the front [end].”
George argued moving the high school start time affects the most amount of kids and is the best choice for the current situation, but it has to come with a long-term plan. His kids, who no longer go to school in the W-H district both get up after the high school bus has come and gone in the morning and they both play sports and enjoy after-school activities.
Another parent said the survey sent out focused on high school students, but felt the other grades have not been sufficently considered.
Planning vote on new WMS
WHITMAN — The Select Board on Tuesday, Feb. 21 discussed the timing of a special Town Election in which to vote on a proposed new Whitman Middle School, as is required by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA).
Chair Randy LaMattina provided an update on the Whitman Middle School project, forecast to cost about $127.5 million for a grade five through eight school with an auditorium. The town’s portion is estimated in the range of $67.1 million to $73.1 million, depending on the MSBA reimbursement.
A website is being set up by the owner’s project manager, dedicated to straight information, with a lot of the documents presented at the Building Committee meetings posted to it, LaMattina said. The board voted to permit IT Director Josh MacNeil to link that site to the town’s website. MacNeil and Finance Committee member Kathleen Ottina have also been added to the Building Committee.
MSBA is looking to the town to hold a special Town Meeting that would later go to a ballot initiative on the project in November 2023, LaMattina said.
“What was discovered was there was no funding source within the feasibility study for [the special election],” he said. “We need to make arrangements to have that placed in the Town Clerk’s budget line.”
LaMattina said he discussed with the Building Committee that November Town Meetings and special elections are not really the norm.
Former Town Administrator Frank Lynam said the town has about $23,000 on hand in voter reimbursement from the state, which could certainly be a source from which to pay for a meeting and election. It would not require further appropriation.
“Is there a time frame in November they’re looking at?” Select Board member Justin Evans asked, noting that since there is a presidential primary in March anyway, it might make more sense to hold a special election at that time, since that is a high-voter turnout canvass.
“How specific are the MSBA guidelines?” Evans asked.
“What we have is, ‘Any time in November,’” LaMattina said.
“We will have an election already, being held in Town Hall which will probably have a higher turnout,” Evans said. “It makes sense to me to run a second ballot alongside the primary ballot, so every voter comes and grabs two and casts a yes or no on a new middle school.”
Evans said he wasn’t certain how a March 2024 ballot question would impact the school timeline.
LaMattina said he would send the appropriate emails to explore that option.
In other business, Whitman needs to use all of its renewable revenue, School Committee member Dawn Byers said during the public forum, prepared remarks about the town’s levy capacity.
“We are not doing that right now, from what I see,” she said “When you, the Board of Selectmen vote to set the tax rate and the tax levy in the fall, if you do so, and it is not at the full 2.5 percent as permitted by Mass. General Law, then the difference is called the excess levy capacity,” she said.
She recalled that she had stood at the podium in March 2019 to ask questions about a revenue problem, when residents were told that the town faced, when in fact, it was related to the tax levy revenue collections. Byers pointed to an excess levy of about $350,000 available and former Town Administrator Frank Lynam made corrections and was able to collect it.
“We see this online in the Department of Revenue Certified Data,” she said. The Madden report also referenced the correction done in 2020, Byers noted. “This is one more indication of Whitman’s need to use all of its available renewable revenue to balance its budget and other obligations.”
She also recounted how the Select Board approved a tax levy with only $10,000 remaining, and in 2022, that amount was $18,000. “[That’s] a major improvement, however it doesn’t erase the collection deficit from prior years totaling more than $4 million in tax revenue not collected,” she said. “Something looks off this year, as well. The excess is up to $278,000.”
Board Vice Chair Dan Salvucci reminded Byers that the board routinely votes for a property tax factor of one, meaning businesses and homeowners pay the same tax rate as recommended by the Board of Assessors.
Lynam explained that the excess levy is established when the assessor prepares the tax status for the town with the recap sheet used to calculate an estimated levy.
“The actual levy is not calculated until they receive all the certified values from Patriot and they complete all of the reviews in their office to enter into the DOR gateway system,” he said.
The DOR calculates the numbers for us. At the time this year’s special Town Meeting convened, the town didn’t know what the levy was. Two weeks before the tax classification hearing the town was reported to be $268,000 over the levy limit.
“We have no control over what is calculated until it’s presented to this board,” Lynam said, adding that there are methods that can be used to capture that additional levy. Typically towns will underestimate revenues in an effort to increase the amount of the levy to back into the total number. “But in this particular instance, we didn’t know what that number was,” he said. “I’d love to be able to capture it, but I’d have to have the tools to do it.”
LaMattina said Byers had mentioned the issue before and asked Lynam to explain 2013 again – the year National Grid caused a ballooning of its personal property taxes.
Lynam said the town had been struggling to come up with numbers then, too, while dealing with a payment on the police station inside the levy. When he plans a budget, he said he asks the assessor for estimates of growth and numbers for the increase in the levy on Proposition 2 ½.
“In 2013, we were told our growth was … $240,000,” he said. “No matter how we looked at it, those were the numbers we had. We didn’t see the $1.1 million until the night of the classification hearing. … I was really taken aback by that number. It was a huge number. We were actually stunned.”
The funds were all in utilities, which changed last year, which used to send a letter to the town stating increases in assets and personal property. That became the basis for the tax, according to Lynam. The letters, date-stamped in January, were never presented to the town through the entire budget cycle.
“We had no idea that kind of growth was out there,” he said. “We didn’t know about that until it was too late to do anything with it.”
It was personal property growth that best estimates showed it would be gone in six to eight years, but it increases real estate assessments increase to maintain the levy when the personal property values drop.
“There’s no vote by anyone, there’s no action by anyone, it’s just a consequence of balances,” he said. “There’s no provision for reducing your assessments unless all of the numbers drop in value. It was an unfortunate situation. It was crazy, actually.”
Select Board member Shawn Kain said he would be looking into the issue and said he appreciated her willingness to ask hard questions.
To help the town recoup needed revenue, Byers has also suggested the town consider increasing the lease on the Self Help Inc.-operated Head Start program building opposite Whitman Park at 168 Whitman Ave.
Self Help is a nonprofit agency operated out of Brockton that also manages a fuel assistance program among others.
She noted the property could be valued at potentially $1 million.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic program,” Byers said. “It’s one of six locations in southeastern Mass., licenced by DEEC and supports low-income families throughout the year. You will not find a greater supporter of early childhood education than myself – I’ve gone on record about that.” But, she said, her concern is not about the programs provided by Self Help to the community, but whether the town can afford to “give away a building for free.”
Byers said the building is a valuable revenue stream the town may be letting slip away while telling taxpayers the town can’t afford other areas of a budget.
Hanson begins WHCA contract talks
HANSON – People may complain about their cable bill, but they seem to value the services of the local cable access channels – especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people felt isolated during the health restrictions on public gatherings.
The Hanson Select Board held a public hearing with Comcast Communications LLC of Massachusetts during its Tuesday, Feb. 7 meeting regarding renewal of the Whitman Hanson Community Access contract with the town of Hanson.
Select Board member Ann Rein was unable to attend the meeting.The process aims to identify the future cable-related community needs and interest in reviewing the contract under the current provider. The current 10-year contract expires June 1, 2025.
“It’s required to start this renewal process well in advance because of all the formalities that need to take place,” Town Administrator Lisa Green said. Attorney William Sullivan, who represents the town in the renewal process took part in the hearing to go over the specifications.
“Never has community television and the assistance they have provided to both towns – Whitman and Hanson – and the Commonwealth … has it been recognized as such an essential part of the community,” he said of the cable access company’s service during the COVID pandemic. “Those were [among] the essential workers who allowed democracy and government to continue.”
Without it, for several months, local government would have ceased.
Cable access has continued to see public access coverage of government activities make up more of their schedule.
“If you show me a community that has strong local television, I’ll show you a town that works together toward democracy as its goals,” Sullivan said.
He has worked with Hanson during the two previous renewal processes and said his role is to determine how the federal cable law incentivizes both sides to figure out what’s important for the town to negotiate a license.
Comcast began as a small local company whose employees “understand localism,” according to Sullivan.
WHCA-TV executive director Eric Dresser made a presentation on the history of the access channel’s service to the town. He has been with WHCA since 2017. Hanson had 2,292 subscribers out of 10,639 residents as of 2021, and Whitman had 2,160 subscribers out of 15,121 residents in that same year.
Established in 2002, WHCA has gained a production truck for live TV programming, outfitted auditoriums for town meeting broadcasts and moved to tapeless production during that time.
Hanson Veterans’ Agent Timothy White said WHCA provided the ability for him to honor the community’s fallen when public health restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather in public during COVID threatened the event in 2020.
“It was a very difficult situation,” he said. “We really didn’t have clear or set guidelines on what to do, we didn’t have a parade. … The ability to project [that year’s program] and send that out to the community was huge … WHCA was a great partner on that day and every day.”
Indian Head Elementary Principal Dr. Joel Jocelyn said he has also had a very beneficial and constructive partnership with WHCA, which has taped events at the school so the community can see what type of programs are offered.
“But, even more than that, it’s valuable in enhancing the leadership skills of some of our students,” he said, noting the fourth-grade student council members have been able to learn about for their own video work. “You can’t put a price on something like this.”
Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak told the Select Board that the 10 members of the School Committee, representing both towns, unanimously endorsed WHCA.
“Being a [school administrator], I live in a world of Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, and I think ‘old reliable’ is TV,” he said. “It’s a real medium for us to get our message out. … They’re professional. They’re always unbiased in how they approach things and they’re always available.”
Carlos Caldas of 87 Waltham St., asked if the town has a cable committee, which Select Board Chair Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett said the town does not have, and what has Comcast offered. FitzGerald-Kemmett said the negotiation process had not yet reached that point.
Caldas said he should like to serve on any Cable Committee the town might establish and has undergone the ethics training.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said it might be a good time to establish a subcommittee for the negotiations, but Select Board Vice Chair Joe Weeks said the board had dissolved the committee last year, when Caldas was the only active member.
“I think that was an opportunity for us to, before we talk of removing things, figuring out how to utilize talent appropriately, and we never circled back to it,”: Weeks said. “To me, it makes sense that, if we have people who are willing to help out in some way, if we already had a foundation that existed … maybe it’s worthwhile to come back to it.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett said at the time people expressing an interest in applying, thought they were actually applying to the W-H Cable Access board,” she said, asking Sullivan what he saw in other communities.
He said there are varying degrees of acitivity with cable committees around the state.
“There are a lot of things a committee could do,.” he said. “The best committees are those that stay together in some way [during] the 10-year period.”
The Select Board will discuss reviving the Cable Committee at the board’s next meeting on Tuesday, Feb.21.
Whether or not that committee is re-establish, Select Board member Jim Hickey recommended getting Caldas to advise the board on what would be best for the town. The Select Board agreed to that.
Historical Commission member Teresa Santalucia also voiced support for WHCA for its help with an interview project recording the memories of Hanson residents as part of the town’s 200th anniversary project.
WHCA has also covered her family’s Red Acres Christmas Sing event for several years.
“You’re finding in the aftermath of COVID that people are feeling disconnected and isolated, and sometimes that connectivity, even if it’s just through cable, watching an event or meeting, does help people feel a little bit more connected,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
Green also expressed support for WHCA, in her role as a private citizen who hosts a Halloween car show to benefit Dollars for Scholars.
“It’s a great way to see … what went on in their neighborhood and community,” she said.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said WHCA’s broadcasting of events and meetings in both towns helps inform Hanson residents about their partner town in the regional school district, as well.
Dresser said WHCA serves more than 200 nonprofit groups, 43 departments and committees – broadcasting 412 government meetings since 2018. They have covered 82 events at the schools over the past 10 years, as well as 1,400 unique programs produced by their staff.
WHCA also devoted time and resources for extensive information about the pandemic and coverage of events during COVID.
“We remain ready to stay dynamic and ready to pivot for whatever might come in the future, and with sufficient resources … we stand ready to continue to proudly fulfil our mission statement,” he said.
More information, as well as opportunities to comment are still available on the WHCA website, whca.tv.
WHRSD holds budget hearing
The W-H Regional School Committee held its public hearing and budget presentation on the fiscal 2024 budget on Wednesday, Feb. 1.
The current budget figure of $60,510,901.43 for fiscal 2024 represents a 3.45-percent increase over the final operating budget of $58,492,314 for the current fiscal ’23 budget.
“The budget I present today aligns with the district’s strategic plan, the School Committee goals and what we believe provides a quality education for the students of Whitman and Hanson,” Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szimaniak said. “What you will see tonight is a level-services budget.
But he is willing to move the financial needle, if the School Committee wants to do that.
Szymaniak said he has also included options for increasing services and “enhancing the educational opportunities” for students.
“This budget is different from the budget presentations in December and January, and I assume this is not the final iteration of the district budget,” he said.
Gov. Maura Healey’s state budget does not come out until March 1, as new governors are given extra time to assemble their first spending plan.
Szymaniak gave a Powerpoint presentation, answering questions from the committee and pubic attending.
The four points of the disctrict’s strategic plan are: ExSEL (Excellence in Social Emotional Learning), a Pre K-12 system of teaching and learning, safe and secure school environments and community engagement.
The School Committee’s focus areas are: Early college and Innovation Pathways, robust related arts curriculum in kindergarten to grade 12, improving school culture and climate ad an examination of school start times. The strategic plan initiatives included in the FY24 budget presentation are an adjustment to school start times, inclusion of a K-8 robotics and foreign language with implementation of Spanish in grade 8.
A presentation on transportation costs will be held on Wednesday, Feb. 15, but the cost of aligning elementary start times in one of three scenarios, could cost as much as $148,666.72 more than the proposed budget of $1,759,984.88. Excess and deficiency would be looked to in that case.
The deadline for sending the school budget to the towns is March 16, with a certification vote slated for March 15.
A major unanticipated cost to the budget is a 14-percent potential increase for private and public special education placements. Szymaniak said administration has recently learned there is a potential for two out-of-district placements to be moving into the district under the new budget year.
“It could be 14 percent,” he said, noting Business Manager John Stanbrook had included a 3-percent benchmark in the budget for the increase. “But, I’m also not confident that it’s going to be 14 percent, so this number of $650,000 is not in the budget.”
He pulled it out of the budget, where it was included in December and January, and has placed it as a separate line item that the School Committee will have to provide guidance in funding, using either excess and deficiency (he sees it as a one-time cost), or fiscal 2025 Circuit Breaker funds could be used.
Szymaniak is estimating that retirements planned across the district could save $313,937 in replacement costs at lower salaries. ESSER III funds used in the fiscal ’24 budget are $67,000 for BCBA (?), $125,000 for English as a second language teachers and $260,000 for interventionists as well as $300,000 for paraprofessionals. ESSER funds expire in fiscal 2025.
“The goal and objectives for FY 2525 will be to drill down, after three years of data collecting, [to learn] how well the interventionists worked in the district and if they’re a necessity moving forward , or how we could pare down that,” Szymaniak said. “I know that’s a big number, but it’s a number we’re going to be working on moving into this school year.”
Interventionists were hired to help students struggling after the isolation of remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. The efficiency of paraprofessionals will also be studied.
State and federal student support guidelines also inform district programs.
For STEM and robotics trough grade eight, the options are to conduct if through library class at elementary schools with pre-constructed curricula of iRobot ($30,000) for K-2 and Robotifi ($25,000 online programs) for grades three to eight, and revamping middle school ccurriculm to create a solid foundation for high school instruction. The additional cost to move the district forward is $55,000.
Foreign language options are: an approach with independent student work augmented with part-time teachers for a cost of $98,400, or adding three Spanish teachers and two reading teachers between the two middle schools at a cost of $335,000 to add.
“I don’t know if we can hire three Spanish teachers in this current climate of teachers – they’re few and far between,” Szymaniak said. “I’m also looking at a potential building project in Whitman, moving between a grade alignment.”
He said he’d prefer phasing the language program in through an online presence, but noted that was a discussion for another time.
But W-H is no longer at the bottom of per-pupil spending in the state.
“We’re not at [the per-pupil spending level] of the area communities yet, and I don’t know if we’ll ever be … but it’s important that we are still behind,” Szymaniak said. “Most of our league-mates in our athletic league, and most of our colleagues on the South Shore [spend more].”
Committee member Fred Small said state officials are anticipating a revenue increase of 1.6 percent, rather than the larger percentages of recent years, and that projections should be cautious. “We’re talking about how much we’re going to get in reimbursement,” Small said. “But we’re also a year behind on reimbursements, but yet we’re factoring in those funds.”
Chair Christopher Howard said the Budget Committee had been discussing that issue.
“It’s not going to help us for this year, but it kind of speaks to the one-time offset,” he said.
Small said that if the Committee was sure a reimbursement was definitely coming back, then the special ed increase would be a proper use for one-time money.
“But it’s not in here, anywhere,” he said of the budget and presentation
Committee member Dawn Byers commented on Szymaniak’s assessment of teacher morale and it’s impact on the budget.
“I have a teaching staff whose morale is teetering,” he said. “Things are difficult in the classroom. Things are difficult with our students.”
Students are returning to school with socialization issues following the pandemic, acting differently. Parents are also different, while they have always been respectfully demanding, there has been an increase in the attitude that “I want an answer now,” he said.
“It’s not bad, it’s just different,” he said.
Szymaniak said he wanted to avoid presenting a budget that residents attending would feel there is no way they could succeed with, and have teachers fear layoffs.
“We pink-slipped 62 people while we were home during COVID, and I don’t want to do that again,” he said.
Byers said the new state Secretary of Education has already been speaking about the importance of working to stabilize, heal and transform.
“I feel that’s where we’re still at,” she said. “When you say staff is panicked about pink slips, I don’t think we’re at all near that, nor should we.”
She said the towns, having received the MARS report on funding formulas, officials know where they stand.
“We know that best practices for finances in municipalities is that they should take care of their largest budget first, and the schools are the largest budget,” she said. “Absolutely. They should be. It’s education. It’s the future. I can’t at all participate in any type of false narrative, if we get there, that the town’s can’t afford our education budget. It is important and we are nowhere near providing what our students and staff deserve.”
She asked Szymaniak if he had anything in writing pertaining to what is being done with the savings to the budget from teacher retirements.
“As I said before, the numbers I had in December were off,” he said. “Salary increases moved the budget needle to 5.5. That $300,00 went right into making sure this budget was around a 3.5 target [increase], pushing it forward.”
Small said the committee should try sending a Student Success Budget again.
“It’s not up to us to go over the town’s budget and try to tell the town, ‘You should cut this, you should cut that. You have too many police officers, you have too many firefighters.’ They have their budgets and they have what they’re doing for a reason,” he said. “We know there’s a guidance for us, at least in Whitman, and if we can live within a guidance … I would hope we can make a case for everything we want.”
Hanson looks at early budget numbers
HANSON – Interim Town Accountant Eric Kinsherf and Town Administrator Lisa Green presented “real preliminary budget numbers” to the Select Board on Tuesday, Jan. 24, while the board said “no thank you to sharing accountant services with Whitman,
“I think we have a good start for this time of the year,” Kinsherf said about the amount of information now available to the acountant’s office.
Green said all departments had submitted their budgets on time but “we don’t have numbers outside of Town Hall to work on,” as Gov. Maura Healey plans to unveil her state budget March 1 and the W-H School District is still dealing with preliminary numbers because of that, too
“We have put together, based on some revenues, a very preliminary initial budget kickoff,” Green said, handing off the presentation to Kinsherf, who termed it “a good footprint to work with,” but noted some information such as real estate taxes is easy to forecast.
Hanson can anticipate $883,000 – 3.4 percent of the levy – in new real estate taxes next year, he said. Of that, the new growth forecast is level with last year at $250,000.
Local receipts were also fairly level, according to Kinsherf.
Based on initial receipts from the new meals tax, he is estimating a $48,000 gain, for the town coffers.
State aid figures will not be available until March.
“The long and short of it, for new revenues, compared to last year, we’re looking at $945,000,” he said.
Budget requests have not been vetted yet, he said, but the biggest preliminary numbers are from the school budget, where a $1 million increase is being estimated.
Select Board Chair Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett again asked if any information about local impact revenue from cannabis business Impressed LLC had yet been determined.
“It seems to be taking quite a long time,” she said. “It’s been more than a minute.”
Green said they would be seeing real estate and personal property taxes, but sales tax information would not be available until the business harvests its third crop, having grown two test crops so far.
“It seems we have not been having a robust and ongoing conversation with them,” said FitzGerald-Kemmett, in asking that the company be contacted for more information. “We’ve taken quite a leap of faith in entering into a community host agreement with them and we’ve seen – other than the real estate taxes and the real property, we have not seen the money that we were hoping to see.”
Select Board member Ann Rein advised Green to see if there have been any top-level changes at the company, and she said that she had heard a rumor that they were missing a certification, which was holding everything up.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said the community host agreement requires Impressed LLC to inform the town of such personnel changes, if any had been made, and no mention of test crops had been made, either.
Green said she would contact the company.
FitzGerald-Kemmett also said a lot of new growth given the green light by either the ZBA or zoning inspector had been delayed by materials shortages during the supply chain crisis, and related cost increases, have lately shown signs of activity only to halt.
The board also discussed Whitman interim Town Administrator Frank Lynam’s suggestion that the two towns share an accountant.
“Financially, it looks like it’s a good idea,” Green said. “But after speaking to Eric about it, and looking at how sharing somebody has either benefited us or not … in the past, it may not be the best road to go down, but I’m going to leave that to the board to discuss.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett said she agreed with that reasoning, as well as the prospect of sharing an accountant with a town with which Hanson is in a regional schools agreement – “which, at times, has had some contention and difficult moments” – might not be the best fit.
“I appreciate them reaching out and, for certain services, I certainly would entertain shared services, town accountant is just way too close to home for me,” she said.
Despite the standards of practice and ethics in the accountant profession, FitzGerald-Kemmett said she felt the optics are “not great.”
The board was unanimous in agreement.
“I think we’ve decided we’re looking for someone full-time here,” Weeks said. “It’s a good Plan B if we ever needed it.”
“[We] would like to thank our brethren in Whitman for thinking of us and for reaching out and … no thank you,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said, noting that former accountant Todd Hassett had urged the town to hire a full-time, in-house accountant. She also note that, no matter how well-intentioned such a partnership is, it is difficult to get an even 50/50 split of services.
2/3 School Committee vote discussed
WHITMAN – A suggestion made during the Monday, Jan. 9 WHRSD Regional Agreement Committee that all School Committee votes require a two-thirds vote to carry, was greeted with concern by Whitman Selectmen at their Tuesday, Jan. 24 meeting.
Right now, only budget certification needs a two-thirds vote to pass.
Whitman representative to the Regional Agreement Committee, Select Board member Justin Evans reported on the two meetings held on Jan. 9 and 23. The vote issue was discussed on Jan. 9.
Evans said the voting threshold was the only issue on that agenda that delved into deep discussion.
Hanson Select Board member and Regional Agreement Committee representative Jim Hickey said that is why he felt that a two-thirds vote on any kind of vote taken by the School Committee would make would be the easiest way to solve the problem.
“On anything that the School Committee would actually vote for, you’d need seven out of 10,” he said on Jan. 9. “If the School Committee is doing their job, there’s never a tie vote.”
Evans told his board that the expectation was that Hanson would seek reconfiguration of how many members come from each town, as that approach has been discussed to this point.
“I wanted to get the opinion of this board because I think that will be the biggest area of disagreement when we go back for next Monday’s meeting,” Evans said. “How do we feel about every vote the School Committee takes being at least a two-thirds vote.”
Interim Town Administrator Frank Lynam said that, just like a budget vote. The proposed change would require two-thirds of all members, and not just of those School Committee members present to approve anything.
“It would really be inappropriate to change the number of members from each town,” Lynam said, noting that representation is based on population. “The alternative was a suggestion that there’s some – I would call unfounded concern – that Whitman having six members and Hanson having four members, puts them in a difficult position when issues are controversial, and the interests of a particular town are at hand.”
Lynam said he could only remember one vote, in all his years of dealing with the region, that broke down along town lines, 6-4 and that was the assessment method of dividing costs to the schools.
“The question is, is there enough concern, either on the Whitman side or the Hanson side, that we need to put in some type of circuit-breaker that prevents us from voting along town lines on issues that effect the School Department,” Lynam said.
Evans said he thinks the School Committee members will push back on the proposals as well, because it couldn’t function without seven members.
“I think they’ll push back on that pretty hard,” he said. “They may entertain two-thirds of present members, which would create all kinds of strange scenarios for voting.”
Evans said he is uncertain if he could personally support the proposal but stressed he is the representative to the committee from the Select Board and wanted to get their opinion.
“I don’t even know if they’d reach out to counsel to see if it’s allowable, according to state law,” Evans said.
Select Board Chair Randy LaMattina said he understood Evans’ concern and the nature of compromise, but that the most important vote the School Committee takes every year is the budget and views the issue as “an internal problem.”
“I don’t know if I would argue it,” he said.
“This is a decision that doesn’t effect our hand so much as the School Committee themselves,” Evans said. “I think their opinion matters more than ours, but I wanted to see how we felt.”
Select Board members Dr. Carl Kowalski said he didn’t see any reason to go to a two-thirds vote.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “Leaving it the way it is, does.”
“For as long as I’ve been involved, Hanson’s had the chair,” Evans said.
“Yes, they have,” Kowalski said.
Evans noted that Regional Agreement Committee members do see the reorganization votes are a time when the two-thirds vote would definitely come into play.
The current agreement stipulates that “in accordance with one man, one vote committee members will be elected by voters in member communities, with each community’s representation apportioned according to population” and adjusted every five years, beginning in 1995.
School Committee Chair Christopher Howard said his interpretation was that the passage pertained to the interim committee and that the proposed agreement kept that unless and until “a shift in the effective populations in the member towns … creates an impermissible disparity, based on the one person, one vote principal, the committee will address the disparity by either adjusting the committee members or weighing the votes.”
A state law governing how regional committees can form their membership through one of five ways:
Electing committee members by voters in each town with the number of members apportioned by population;
Electing members through district elections on biennial state election ballots;
Electing members with residency requirements in district elections on biennial state election ballots;
Weighing the votes of committee members according to the population they represent; or
Appointing committee members by locally elected officials such as school board members.
Howard said issues that had been difficult to surmount in past years because “we couldn’t get a two-thirds vote.”
School Committee Vice Chair Christopher Scriven noted that, while it may not always be right, people tend to vote for their town.
“To me, that’s wrong,” Hickey said. “I think the School Committee, as members has to hold themselves to a higher standard.”
Evans also reported to the Whitman Select Board on Jan. 24 that the Regionalization Committee discussed busing calculations again as well as what capital needs of the schools come under the heading of an “emergency” cost.
Evans said in years when the School Committee has a large balance in excess and deficiency, they could pay for emergency repairs of most kids, but in leaner budget years, even some of the smaller costs will have to be sent to the towns.
“I personally think an emergency cost is an emergency,” LaMattina said. “It is going to impact you going to school the next day, or impact a particular school or classroom.”
“That’s where most of the conversation was,” Evans said.
Select Board Vice Chair Dan Salvucci stressed that he did not want to see repairs delayed until they were big enough to pass along to the town.
“As far as I’m concerned, that is mismanagement of town buildings,” he said.
Evans also said requiring a periodic review of the Regional Agreement was relatively non-controversial.
Towns get early look at school budget
The school district outlined its preliminary figures for a“reasonable budget” of $60,984,583 during a preliminary budget presentation to officials from both towns on Thursday, Jan. 12. That figure represents a 3 percent increase.
“My goal for tonight is to give both boards, both FinComs, the select boards in Hanson and Whitman an overview of what the regional school district budget looks like,” Superintendent of School Jeffrey Szymaniak said. “This is a preliminary overview that I shared with [the] School Committee Dec. 21, right before the winter break.”
Szymaniak made a presentation before Business Manager John Stanbrook spoke about the financial picture
“This is a level-service budget as presented,” Szymaniak said. “We are not adding any additional staff. We are, in this budget hopefully [reusing] retirement funds to be able to fund staffing positions that are currently in ESSER 2 and ESSER 3.”
ESSER 2 federal Coronavirus grants are expiring and ESSER 3 expire in September 2024.
Budget information, which had not been adjusted since the Dec. 21 meeting, are available on the school district website whrsd.org.
“Again, this is prelim, so we had to make some estimates going forward,” he said. “I also ask both [Select] boards to offer some grace in going forward. As you know, we’ve had some technical issues, dating back to July, and we are knee-deep – neck-deep – in W2s right now, to make sure our employee get their tax documents prior to Jan. 31.”
After Stanbrook completes that, the information will be made available at the Wednesday, Feb. 1 budget meeting. Szymaniak said the school district and committee are also in the process of developing a new five-year strategic plan for the district, which they hope will be approved by the School Committee this June.
Stanbrook said Hanson’s operating assessment is currently calculated at a 7.88 percent increase and Whitman’s at 8.52 percent higher.
District goals for the current budget were tuition-free, all-day kindergarten, one-to-one devices for students, a robust K-eight related arts program and an improved culture and climate in district schools. Szymaniak thanked both communities for supporting all-day kindergarten and making it possible for each student to have a [Chromebook] device on which to learn.
“We were not successful, necessarily, in putting forth a robust K-eight related arts program,” he said. “We’re still in motion on that, with a goal this year to potentially put it into the FY ’24 budget.”
School start times, if changed, and the related arts programs, will have a financial effect on the fiscal 2024 budget, innovation pathways toward early college courses will have no impact on the budget, he said.
The budget currently does not have the funds included to bring back foreign language to the middle school to the extent students would like to see [see related story, opposite].
Improving the culture and climate so that every student has an equitable experience in school, preK-to-age 22, has no financial implications, he said.
Szymaniak said class sizes are “better than they ever have been and students are achieving more than they have in the past,” and credited community support for budgets has meant lower class sizes, giving teachers more one-on-one opportunities to help students since 2010.
Retaining special education students in the district is another goal, as well as support for English language learners.
Enrollment is expected to maintain its current levels – at about 3,440 students – for the foreseeable future.
Salaries and expenses are being calculated to increase about 3 percent – but not across he board, but more to ensure salaries are not underfunded. Hold harmless requirements will increase the required town contributions by 5 percent and the town split for non-mandated busing is estimated at 60.61 for Whitman and 39.39 percent for Hanson.
A major questionmark remains the state’s special education tuition expectations.
Szymaniak said in December, he is looking at what represents or a 4.19-percent increase over the current budget. The district has tried to keep the increase to 3 percent every year in the interest of fairness to the towns, and, if a state-mandated 14 percent increase in special education tuition could be eliminated, the WHRSD budget increase is back to 3 percent, he said.
Whitman Selectman Shawn Kain disagreed on the way the budget is being rolled out.
“We should have a revenue forecast,” he said. “We should come together and come to consensus about what we’re going to do about revenue … and then we should build our budget.”
He said a consensus is missing in the process, which creates tension in the community and between other departments and asked if the school department was looking for an override.
“I don’t know,” said Szymaniak, who stressed the budget is preliminary without state budget information, as well as from the towns. “What I would like to get is the budget forecast from both communities, because that hasn’t been presented to me in two years.”
He said he was targeting a 3 percent increase this year.
Whitman Select Board Chair Randy LaMattina said he respectfully disagreed that the schools had not received town financial forecasts, having provided a fiscal policy three years ago that gave up to a 5 –percent increase to the schools and 2.5 percent to other departments.
“We’ve not moved off that,” he said, noting that Whitman School Committee members have consistently reminded the district about it.
“It’s seems the understanding falls on you, Mr. Szymaniak, because you haven’t gotten it right yet,” he said. “The amount of money you just asked for in this budget is more than the town takes in.”
LaMattina said the purpose for financial forecasting is to enable the town to live with from year to year.
He also asked how many positions were paid for with onetime funds, information Szymaniak said he would have by the Wednesday, Feb. 1 public hearing on the budget.
Whitman Finance Committee member Kathleen Ottina said other town departments have also come in with higher numbers than the town could afford, because this is the preliminary stage of budgeting.
“I think the tone that’s beginning to escalate in this room needs to be ratcheded down,” she said. “We have to start somewhere. … We’re all good people who work very hard to do the right thing for everybody.
Hanson Selectman Jim Hickey the budget picture is similar to the age-old chicken-or-the-egg question.
“You’re waiting to get information from the towns in October 2022 to present something to the district, to the board, to the School Committee in January, but you’re not getting those numbers in October,” he said. “Maybe it’s the towns’ fault … maybe it’s the selectmen’s fault, the town administrator’s fault that we don’t have the numbers projected for you in October to use for us in January.”
He said the process has to start somewhere.
“At some point, we have to start,” he said. “It has to change.”
Whitman Selectman Justin Evans said a lot of progress has been made.
“We’re moving in the right direction, and I do think that, for Whitman, out budget forecast is going to get better every year that Shawn is on the board,” he said. “He’s been pushing us since he was a citizen, attending meetings of he board.”
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