The School Committee certified a $58,492,314.12 budget, with a general fund increase of $1,694,734 — or 2.98 percent — for fiscal 2023 at its Wednesday, March 16 meeting. Whitman’s assessment would be $16,889,943.66 — an increase of $785,040, or 4.87 percent — and Hanson’s would be $13,341,812 — an increase of $695,694 or 5.5 percent to the operating assessment.
The budget Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak presented includes: two more special education teachers; implementation of full-day kindergarten without the use of from excess and deficiency (E&D) funds; using $400,000 (E&D) for Chromebooks; and $123,000 from E&D for paying the Whitman water bill settlement — all under Scenario 3 of 11 possible spending options presented on March 9 [see related story].
Budget documents reflecting Scenario 3 have been uploaded to the school district website whrsd.org under the school district heading in the “select a school” drop-down menu. The seven professional staff members covered by ESSER3 funds, one of the uses permitted under the grant program, are also listed. The funds have to be spent by September 2024.
“This is what these monies are for — so we can provide remediation for these kids,” School Committee member Fred Small said. “To me, this is the perfect thing we should be spending this money on. … I don’t see how we don’t do this.”
Committee member Dawn Byers had urged a budget that added the $400,000 for Chromebooks, instead of using E&D funds, placing the budget at $58,892,314.12. That motion was later withdrawn, when Business Manager John Stanbrook said it would be merely a shift of the funding source for the Chromebooks, not a dollar amount voted. By moving the funding source out of E&D, he explained it could possibly increase the assessment to the towns for that expense. The committee then voted to use $523,885 from the $1.8 million in E&D to be used for a Whitman water bill settlement and the Chromebooks. There was an influx of funds in E&D from one-time COVID relief funds.
“I feel this is extremely dangerous, but that we are facing a fiscal cliff and if we have $1.8 million in E&D right now, we are by law allowed to [retain] 5 percent, so we could keep an E&D balance of $2.9 million for emergency,” Byers had said. “Reducing this down to $1 million puts us in a position to not replenish very much next year.”
“We have to look at why our enrollment is declining,” Byers said in her initial argument for including Chromebooks in the general budget. She said it it may be more about programs they lack, rather than declining birth rates. As technology is changing education, not including Chromebooks in the general budget would be more realistic.
Committee member David Forth also said he has heard from residents who moved to Whitman and were planning families, not realizing the district didn’t offer free all-day kindergarten already.
“I know that we can do better and this is a path forward to let the towns know that this is the actual cost of education,” Byers said.
“We have a plan, too,” Szymaniak said.
The committee also voted against paying non-mandated busing costs — $121,475 for Hanson and $487,839 for Whitman — sending the cost to the individual towns as has been past practice.
Without a reduction in the non-mandated busing assessment from a purely financial concern, Whitman Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman said, his town’s budget would be out of balance by about $224,000. He reminded the committee that Hanson Town Administrator Lisa Green has said her town can only handle a 3 percent assessment increase.
The district is also one of six in the state taking part in a Rennie Center study, at no cost to the district, on how school districts are spending the ESSER affects learning and what happens when the grant ends, according to Szymaniak. W-H has partnered with the Rennie Center on social-emotional learning studies in the past.
Szymaniak said he is also hearing that eight retirements are coming by the time the grant expires.
The blueprint that’s going to be developed should show the district whether and how the ESSER benefit is sustainable and how they can move forward and keep it sustainable, according to Assistant Superintendent George Ferro.
Chairman Christopher Howard said he had approached Heineman for information on the town’s budget figures. Hanson was still working on their numbers, as of that meeting, Howard said. As soon as he obtains the rest of the numbers, he said it would be shared in another meeting.
Szymaniak reported about the meeting he and the Whitman Finance Committee had the previous night, adding that he requested that the schools be added to the Finance Committee’s budget schedule earlier next year.
“It was a good discussion,” Szymaniak said. “Not many questions were asked and we were able to present the budget to them … and I appreciated their dialog with us and continued work.”
Howard said he had reached out to Hanson Finance Committee Chairman Kevin Sullivan to reach an understanding of where the town is and Sullivan had extended a tentative invitation for the schools to meet with Hanson FinCom on Tuesday, March 22.
“That would be after our assessment, so it really wouldn’t be a budget presentation, it would be simply [to] understand where the town is,” Howard said.
He left it to the committee to determine if such a meeting would be helpful. Committee members said that, while they could see no reason not to hold the meeting, their job was to certify the budget that night, Szymaniak indicated he would attend, if a firm invitation was issued.
In discussing the use of ESSER funds, School Committee member Hillary Kniffen warned that, while there are teacher retirements ahead that may help the budget, the interventionists that have been brought on to help students catch up, might need to be kept around past 2024.
“Kids need more these days and we need to give it to them, so far as funding public schools,” Kniffen said.
“It’s up to make a responsible decision on a budget,” Byers said, noting that next year — despite planning — the budget may look very different. “One of those is to accurately reflect what the cost is of education.”
Ferro said it was a recommendation that $275,000 be set aside annually for the next large numbers of Chromebooks that are expected to go off line in 2026 and 2029. The current $400,000 sought is to replace the large number of Chromebooks going offline in June.
Three curriculum purchases have been off with between three and four years before the next purchases are due, Ferro said.
“We will be OK as long as this money comes back for the next cycle that we need,” he said.
Howard said that is one reason the five-year plan is something on which the committee will continue work.
Small advocated including all the district’s needs in a comprehensive budget and make the case for it.
“This doesn’t reflect our needs, but it’s a beginning,” Byers said. Increasing programs equals increasing enrollment and getting nearer to the minimum local contribution to the budget and target share that will eventually bring more state aid.
Both Selectman Randy LaMattina and resident John Galvin both cautioned the committee about Whitman’s fiscal health if the school budget was passed at the current funding level.
“Passing this budget the way it is, you’re putting services at risk, whether they be town services or services within the school district itself,” he said. “And then it compounds, and then the use of E&D.”
He said that forcing it on the towns would endanger the school district in the end.