WHITMAN — The Board of Selectmen, on Tuesday, March 15, heard suggestions on dealing with the issue of non-mandated busing and its cost pertaining to school funding from residents John Galvin and Shawn Kain.
Kain pointed to pressure the finance Committee had placed on the schools last year to do more research in an effort to find efficiencies in non-mandated busing.
“It’s been a standing item on their agenda,” Kain said. “I’ve been trying to pay attention to those guys and it’s obviously a priority for them.”
Selectman Randy LaMattina, noting the board’s support of non-mandated busing in Whitman, said he, a couple School Committee members, some Finance Committee members and Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman met about 14 months ago to discuss the escalating cost and whether there was a more fiscally sound way to bill the towns for it. The session included a presentation on the issue by Superintendent Jeff Szymaniak. A quorum of the School Committee attended Whitman’s Finance Committee meeting at the time Galvin and Kain made their presentation March 15.
“We also had a commitment from him that he was going to look into it,” LaMattina said, indicating that the schools would be getting back to them before the school year started on ways it could be better handled.
Kain said the meeting had been helpful in outlining how non-mandated busing worked, but not the numbers behind it.
“This year, when they followed up with another presentation, we had the numbers,” he said.
The town is being charged a service for non-mandated busing.
Heineman said the cost is $411,000 paid by Whitman for non-mandated busing in the current budget, with the fiscal 2023 school budget’s initial numbers calling for $478,000. Galvin and Kain’s data indicated the actual cost is between $100,000 to $131,000.
The state reimburses for mandated busing costs.
“When they did the math on what would happen if we got rid of non-mandated busing, the savings didn’t equate to what we were being charged,” Kain said. “That just doesn’t sit well with me.”
While he noted there could be legitimate reasons for the discrepancy, but the numbers did not adequately explain it to him. For example, if the town got rid of non-mandated busing the state’s reimbursement to the district for transportation was shown to increase by $350,000.
Galvin said the district calculates their cost by every rider, whether mandated or not — about 2,700 riders — and come up with a cost of $646 per pupil, which they then multiply by the number on non-mandated riders they have — 755 in Whitman — to arrive at the $478,000 they indicated Whitman would be assessed. The same calculations are done for Hanson.
“Isn’t that a double payment?” Selectman Dan Salvucci asked.
Kain said that was his first conclusion.
If the non-mandated students were taken out of the equation, Galvin said the numbers provided by the school district showed only about $131,000.
“Isn’t that the true cost of our non-mandated busing?” Galvin asked. By Galvin’s calculations, Hanson’s saving would be $101,000.
Galvin said the group that met 14 months ago, including Business Manager John Stanbrook, have agreed that the formula he and Kain are suggesting is one that made more sense than the way they are doing it now. He said state officials have told them that there is no state guidance on the matter because all regions are different. Heineman suggested there might also be a concern with the fact that it has already been assessed to the towns and therefor not reimburseable and Galvin said there is also a concern that DESE might ask for an audit.
“This is far from a simple topic, there’s no question about it,” Galvin said. “But we’re all in agreement that the way they do it now, isn’t the way we’re going to accept it anymore.”
“It may be that this exact formula doesn’t work,” Kain said of their work. “But something like this could be really beneficial.” While the towns could be paying less in busing costs, the district could stand to receive more in state aid.
“It’s a win-win,” he said.
Galvin said the distribution of savings would have to be done carefully. There are four other busing scenarios the school district has been calculating as well.
“When you make the shift … it’s the second year you see the savings and the bid reimbursement coming back from the state,” Kain said, regardless of what formula is used.
“You’d think you’d want to file your actual costs on your end-of-year report,” Galvin said. “It almost falls into the perfect use of one-time funds.”
That added to frustration among Whitman Selectmen about the previous week’s joint meeting with the Hanson board.
“That time came and went and, as you may be aware, a couple of weeks ago this hit a School Committee agenda where I don’t believe our board was painted in the best light,” LaMattia said. “We were kind of portrayed as looking to cut this out to save a few dollars, which I don’t believe was ever the case.”
LaMattina contends the Board of Selectmen has always supported non-mandated busing and the service it provides for parents and their kids.
“The fruits of that meeting were actual numbers placed on this,” he said. “Once you saw the numbers, it’s pretty obvious that the town is subsidizing non-mandated costs, as well as possibly the town of Hanson to a far lesser extent.”
“Both towns have been hurt by this — Whitman considerably,” LaMattina said.
Whitman could only cover its costs in a certified school budget if the town realizes savings on non-mandated busing, Heineman said.
“The [district’s] numbers didn’t make sense,” LaMattina said.
Selectman Brian Bezanson asked if the School District has either questioned or challenged Galvin’s numbers.
“I don’t even know if this has even been presented to the full School Committee yet,” LaMattina said. “It’s been handled by the budget subcommittee.”
That subcommittee sent an email indicating the members agree with Whitman’s numbers, according to LaMattina.
“At our meeting last week, we were chided as not being good partners,” Bezanson said. “Is it disingenuous? Is it a shell game? Is it mistakes? … It’s a little bit of the Boy Who Cried Wolf.”
Bezanson said he found the situation offensive and that Whitman officials are owed an apology from the chairman and vice chair of the School Committee.
“To me, this just reinforces the need for an audit,” Selectman Justin Evans said.
“I’ve always been an advocate of the town taking care of its non-mandated busing people, because I know that the impetus for that came from townspeople a long time ago,” said Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski. “But, I tell you, my faith is shaken right now.”
On the COVID-19 front, Heineman said Whitman has now registered its lowest positivity rate — 2.64 percent — since Aug. 5, 2021, and the lowest number of positive cases at 17 since that date.