School district calculations on an alternative transportation formula may bring retroactive reimbursements as far back as fiscal 2021, district officials told the W-H School Committee at its April 13 meeting.
“I don’t want to speculate to put a wrinkle in what we’re talking about tonight,” Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said, thanking the residents who suggested new ways of looking at the problem. “But, I think this is positive for the district and for both communities in that we could get more mandates reimbursibles and we also cut the cost of non-mandated busing tremendously.”
The committee voted unanimously to amend the fiscal 2023 costs for non-mandated busing for Hanson at $55,234.19 and unanimously to amend the fiscal 2023 costs for non-mandated busing for Whitman to $216,059.44.
They also voted 8-1 amend the operating assessment to Hanson to $13,245,052.04 and to 8-1 set Whitman’s operating assessment at $16,741,119.30. Committee member Dawn Byers voted no to each operating assessment change.
“This is what being a good partner is, working together with members of the community, finding savings, passing them along,” said Committee Vice Chairman Christopher Scriven. “I don’t see the benefit to anyone of doing anything else at this time.”
After two recent Zoom meetings with DESE following a suggested alternative transportation funding formula, Szymaniak then had a conversation with “the men from MARS (the Mass. Association of Regional Schools),” who asked if the district had ever looked at busing and mileage.
“When you take an Über, you pay so much from Point A to Point B … and if it’s 10 miles further, Über charges you more,” he said. He and Committee Chairman Christopher Howard, after discussing the idea, asked Business Manager John Stanbrook to investigate the option.
“He spent quite a bit of time analyzing every student, where they live … and he came up with a theory on mileage and transportation, for mandated transportation and mileage,” Szymaniak said. “The goal … is to try to maximize the amount of state money we could get in reimbursement — and I think we found a solution.”
After running it by DESE funding expert Jay Sullivan, he suggested an easier way to do it.
“That methodology is accepted by the state, and retroactively to fiscal 2022,” Szymaniak said. When a Whitman Finance Committee member asked if the amended calculation could be applied to fiscal 2021 as well, Sullivan said it could.
“I don’t know what that means yet, so I don’t want to discuss numbers, but Jay has John working on fiscal ’21’s actuals to see what we can get for reimbursements,” he said. “Thank you [Kathleen] Ottina for throwing that suggestion out there.”
He also thanked Selectmen Randy LaMattina and Justin Evans, Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman and residents John Galvin — who also serves on the Finance Committee — and Shawn Kain for helping the district “look through a different lens” at the problem of non-mandated busing costs.
The “mile method” — assuming a 90-percent state reimbursement method and approval of the method — Whitman’s assessment could be about $17.3 million, the operating assessment $16,741,000, non-mandated busing $216,000, and capital assessments would stay the same. In Hanson, the assessment could be about $13,782,199, the operating assessment $13,245,052.04, non-mandated busing $55,234 and capital assessments would stay the same.
While the bottom line of the certified budget of $58,492,314 would not change if the mile method were approved, Whitman’s assessment would go down $420,603.92 and Hanson could see a $163,001.20.
Criteria for non-mandated busing services would not change, only the manner in which cost is calculated.
“This is a permanent change,” Howard said of the decision to be made. While that is good, the committee has to keep in mind that reimbursement rates change, he cautioned.
School district counsel, meanwhile advised the assessment breakdown forwarded to towns be continued so it is clear what the process will mean.
Committee member Dawn Byers suggested a single line item for the school costs in accordance with Mass. General Law, but member Beth Stafford urged that a detailed breakdown was needed this year to show the work the committee has done to lower costs.
“It’ just a matter of seeing it,” Stafford said.
Member David Forth, who has been critical of the implementation of the Regional Agreement in the past, suggested continuing the present method of calculating non-mandated busing costs until a Regional Agreement Amendment Committee could hash out what changes should be made.
Both Heather Kniffen and Fred Small expressed concern that the change could create an inequitable situation.
“The way it’s done right now is equitable for both towns, it distributes the costs where they should be distributed, and to whom they should be distributed,” Small said. “And that’s fair and I think both towns should feel that that’s fair.”
Forth said the 80-20 split, in place since at least 2001, is more of an inequity.
Hanson Selectman Jim Hickey agreed there have been problems with the regional agreement for a while and characterized the regional district as a “bad marriage for Hanson.”
“I can tell you that people in Hanson think that the School Committee has somehow lost their way and forgot why they were voted into the seats,” he said. “I think it can be fixed. I think we have to sit down at the table and start from the beginning.”
He said there is a need to fix the system now in place.
“I’m a bit gobsmacked that I’m hearing for the first time about legal opinion that has been received about a busing issue, that have been received that our town has not seen,” Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett. “We have not been asked for an opinion.”
She said she has not seen either the Whitman town counsel or the school committee counsel’s opinion on the busing funding.
“That feels extremely wrong to me,” she said. Talk of breaking non-mandated busing as a separate warrant article does not help Hanson, either, as the town voted the night before to place articles onto their warrant with a deadline of Friday, April 15 to close it. Any additions past that date would require an emergency meeting.
“It feels very much like the line of communication is broken,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “What feels like a very unilateral discussion of the budget is not going to help heal the wounds that we’ve still got from the change in the methodology.”
She did agree with those who suggested the need for a new Regional Agreement.
“We need to sit down and have the hard conversations and come up with a regional agreement that we all feel accurately represents what each town should be bringing to the table, and then we just move forward,” she said.
Howard noted that Whitman folks have been present at about four or more public budget subcommittee meetings where busing has been discussed. The School Committee received a letter from Whitman town counsel after its last meeting and then consulted its own counsel in turn.
He, too, agreed that a new Regional Agreement needs to be negotiated.
“The cleaner we can make this, the more better off we will be,” Howard said.