The School Committee, meeting via Zoom conference call on Wednesday, April 8, learned the reconsideration vote which approved setting the budget at $55,040,238 by a 7-2 vote was improper.
It failed to set a budget on a re-vote 7-3 with only Whitman’s Steve Bois, Dan Cullity and Fred Small voting in favor.
An amendment to set the budget at $55,320,328 including the return of the four teachers failed 6-4 with only Whitman members Bois, Cullity, Dawn Byers, and Alexandria Taylor voting for it.
“We do not have a budget number yet,” said Chairman Bob Hayes.
The committee also voted to forego April vacation — with the full support of the WHEA — to enable setting June 15 as the last day off the school year,
Hayes admitted his error in stating the affirmative votes in the 5-4 vote to set the budget on the first try was the side to move for reconsideration. In fact, it was the prevailing side — the four votes preventing a two-thirds majority to pass the motion — that was to have the opportunity to move for reconsideration. The committee also did not re-vote on the number.
School Committee member Christopher Scriven of Whitman suggested that, since Whitman has postponed its Town Meeting until at least June 3, the committee is not faced with a need to submit a budget at this point.
“We don’t need to set a budget at this point. I think we should think about that before we go ahead and vote something,” Scriven said, after speaking to legal counsel. Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said he also spoke with the School Department’s legal counsel, who concurred that a budget need not be set yet.
“We don’t have to set a budget today,” Szymaniak said. “We’re within the 45 days and new legislation that came out today … about, if we don’t have a budget by July 1, what that means to us.”
Whitman Committee member Steve Bois said he would not vote for a budget that does not include the four teachers because he has heard from several residents how critical that is.
Two Whitman residents also sent emails to the committee decrying the budget vote that did not include the four teachers cut from the budget last year, citing concerns over equity since Whitman schools have higher class sizes and number of low-income families.
“There are a lot of unknowns right now,” said committee member Christopher Howard of Hanson. “We know that state revenue is going to change, we know revenues for the town of Whitman are going to change, we know revenues for the town of Hanson are going to change, and it’s likely — depending on what happens to the rest of the school year — that the school budget is going to change and that’s going to impact us, as well.”
Howard said the committee has not yet reached the point where it can responsibly set a budget. He is “all in” for returning teachers for the benefit of students, but has an issue with the extraordinary time both communities are facing.
Whitman committee member Fred Small noted that the panel has the ability to change its budget numbers right up to town meeting. He said the district is likely to see cuts to regional transportation reimbursement, and that the state is likely to impose 9C cuts for fiscal 2020 before the committee even sets the 2021 budget.
“I agree that we need four teachers, I just don’t know how to pay for them,” Small said.
Szymaniak said teachers could be moved around in-district, within their certification if necessary, to ease class sizes.
“I recognize that life as we know it has changed with coronavirus,” said Whitman committee member Dawn Byers, in urging the committee to maintain its focus. “Coronavirus is impacting the entire world, but still, for the purposes of this committee and the policy we need to set, which is a budget, I still feel we need to focus on our goals — and I know we have a district goal of class sizes, no more than 20 in K-three, no more than 25 in fourth and fifth grade. It’s really frustrating for everyone at this point.”
She said, the revenue problems are not new and were something she heard about for years, but had turned out to be an assessment problem, an excess levy problem.
She then moved to set the budget at $55,320,328 to include the return of the four teachers.
“When I look at this budget I think about what it doesn’t have,” she said.
Scriven countered that it would be in the best interests of the district in the long run to delay a decision until the regional agreement committee can start to work on determining an assessment method. That committee is tentatively slated to meet on Wednesday, April 15.
Hanson committee member Michael Jones agreed.
Committee member Alexandria Taylor of Whitman urged a vote as the committee had “kicked the can down the road” for weeks while knowing the needs of the schools and district.
Howard, who works for a bank where he has seen thousands of deferments on auto loans already, said he wants to see that the committee sets the right budget that the towns will support to take care of the district’s children.
“This is nothing I’ve ever seen before in terms of impact,” he said.
Whitman committee member Dan Cullity said that, while there are revenue concerns, the School Committee has to focus on setting a budget for the schools so Finance Committees can begin working with the numbers.
“Tonight we should be setting something, even though we know, in our hearts that we’re going to take a major hit somewhere down the line over the next few months because the money just won’t be there,” he said.
In other business, Szymaniak said that due to a positive COVID-19 by the significant other of a facilities employee has led to a slow-down in school building cleaning. Most SJ employees who were cleaning buildings are now under quarantine as of Monday, April 6.
Most district staff were already working from home, Szymaniak said.