Unanswered questions about one-time federal funding, long-term financial planning and some initial budget calculation errors were the focus of the W-H School Committee, on Wednesday, Feb. 16
Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak said he had three goals for the meeting – to hear feedback from the School Committee, to answer any questions about the district’s budget presentation and, looking ahead, what to do when federal funds run out in fiscal 2025 to maintain sustainability of programs. The meeting can be streamed at youtube.com/user/WHCA9TV/videos and is rebroadcast on the WHCA cable access channel.
Szymaniak also indicated there was “a couple of calculation mistakes” to clarify where assessments to the towns announced at an earlier meeting were concerned.
“We’ve gone through this a lot,” he said of the budget figures. “We try to do the best we can and give accurate information, and we found another [figure] doubled up today.”
Two people included in the ESSER figures had also been calculated into the district budget when it was presented on Wednesday, Feb. 9.
The new calculations, using a bottom-line budget of $58,543,037, put Hanson’s assessment at 4.51 percent and Whitman’s at 3.67 percent — including full-day kindergarten paid for with half of the funds in excess and deficiency and $400,000 for Chromebooks. Depending on what the committee wants to do with the budget, some things may still have to be moved around, Szymaniak said.
The bottom line figure is still 3.07 percent higher than last year’s budget.
Hanson’s original assessment had been 5.74 percent and Whitman’s had been calculated at 5.16 percent. The new budget document includes $370,000 for full-day kindergarten, $400,000 for Chromebooks and $123,885 for the Whitman water bill.
There is $974,000 remaining in excess and deficiency (E&D).
Without E&D, the assessments would be $5.66 for Hanson and $5.07 for Whitman, Szymaniak said. Using all of E&D, the assessments would be $3.35 for Hanson and $2.28 for Whitman, which is not sustainable.
Committee member Hillary Kniffen expressed concern about the sustainability of full-day kindergarten if it is started with E&D funds. Chairman Christopher Howard noted the start-up cost would be $740,000. The second year is forecast in the five-year plan at $763,000; the third year would be $785,000. The numbers reflect salaries.
Previous full-day kindergarten discussions had presented the start-up costs as high, but that subsequent years would be lower.
Committee member Christopher Scriven said deciding how the committee wants to proceed is vital.
“It’s not only about having enough information to vote for it or not,” he said. “It’s about voting something we believe in and going into the community and supporting it. So its very important that we have an accurate and understanding what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Howard asked Szymaniak to continue crunching the numbers.
“I really want to thank [Business Manager John] Stanbrook,” Szymaniak said. “He’s kind of been working tirelessly since January putting documents together.” Szyamaniak said he and Stanbrook would try to answer as many questions as possible during the meeting.
“Last year, when we were here, we were projecting a budget for kids to return to school,” he said, noting there are still a “lot of moving parts” in the budget. “We still weren’t in school yet. We were in a hybrid mode. I still had home-school students, and I had more than 500 students in a remote program that we were paying for.”
Committee member Dawn Byers, while lauding the reports, asked if they could be consolidated into a booklet of PDFs.
Effects of ESSER
The district had some federal money that “came out of the blue” [ESSER II and III funds], but they didn’t provide any rules to follow.
Howard noted that, as long as he had been on the committee, there had not been any long-range financial planning.
“I think one thing that we’ve all collectively introduced to the process this year is that long-term planning,” he said. “Some of the challenges that we may have in doing it right now are probably helpful because it’s ‘pay me now or pay me later.’”
Howard noted that the long-range planning being undertaken made for a very different budget process.
Committee member Fred Small stressed that, for the short-term planning they still have to think of next year and the year after.
“I think a long-term plan is a great thing, but we have to be cognizant of what we may do now that can affect next year and the year after,” he said.
“To me that is the definition of long-term planning,” Howard said. “I couldn’t agree more.”
Committee member Beth Stafford, pointed to the changes COVID has brought to teaching over the last two years as an illustration of how difficult long-range planning is for schools.
“It’s more difficult, I think, than a town budget because we’re talking children’s needs and we never know,” she said. “If you had done a five-year plan four years ago, it would have fallen apart because [of] COVID.”
While long-range planning is needed, Stafford said, she also wanted to talk about what is being done now.
Howard replied that he just doesn’t want to be sitting at the same table in three years discussing lay-offs because of any decision made today, even as he recognizes the need for the programs they are discussing.
“If we’re saying there’s a need today, and we’re falling into the trap of using one-time federal funding to support that need, I can assure you that we’ll be sitting here in three years and we’ll be cutting positions,” he said. “The money is not going to just flow from the sky.”
Szymaniak said the budget process has taken into account the current program needs plus the committee’s wish to offer full-day kindergarten while maintaining reasonable assessments to the towns. He added that interventionist/coaches were included in last year’s budget prior to knowing the ESSER III guidelines because they couldn’t get it into the operating budget.
“Tell me what you want me to spend, or tell me what you don’t want me to spend and I can make those changes,” Szymaniak said.
Committee member Steve Bois said he had been asked what the total expenditure of everything sought in the budget amounts to.
“I seem to hear that we’re looking for more, but it’s not coming out of the general fund, per se,” he said, asking for a comparison or all the revenues and all the spending included in the FY ’23 budget. [Budget documents are accessible on the school district website whrsd.org].
Vice Chairman Christopher Scriven suggested that the question might be closer to whether one-time funding sources are being used for funding, which is inflating the overall budget for future years.
The district received a total of $3,608,374 through all three Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) programs over three years.
“I am concerned about the ESSER funds going away in FY 2025, but if we look at it big picture again, that one-time money is for learning loss. … we’re looking to do that through our coaches [interventionists] and special education.”
In fiscal 2022 a total of $1,881,655 in one-time grants and federal program funds (largely from ESSER II) were spent on technology, para-professional support and tutors, employee benefits, data and technology software, according to Szymaniak. The district is looking to use $1,305,385 million in fiscal 2023 allocations to add interventionists — now being called coaches — and staff to help students catch up in the classroom, substitutes, para-professionals, supplies, COVID cleaning, and summer buses all of which — except benefits —can be moved within a budget by an amendment through DESE. ESSER II funding goes away in 2024, leaving $1.3 million in ESSER III funds. The plan to pull expenditures for inclusion, a curriculum director for special education and the Hanson Middle School TLC program with the aim of integrating them into the general budget.
“Most of those people were integrated into this budget,” Szymaniak said. “We would like to see them maintained, and through this FY 2023 budget we may move some of those folks over … and keep the assessments to the towns as low as possible.”
Other federal programs, such as Title 3, for which the district my soon qualify due to an increase in ESL students, may also help the budget picture, Szymaniak said.
“I’m really cautious about FY ‘25, because I don’t know what we’re going to need in ’25,’ he said.
“To me, there’s a real danger if we’re using one-time federal money to satisfy those positions,” Howard said of special ed positions paid for through ESSER funds. “You need to make that decision. Are they real positions that we’re going to maintain, because then, to me, they should be in the operating budget.”
Other federal funds
Szymaniak said there are seven positions being funded by federal dollars in the FY ’23 budget, including two English language teachers, a behavioral specialist, a technology coach, two interventionist/coaches and a math interventionist/coach position not yet filled.
Kniffen said the ESL and behavioral positions can’t be paid for with one-time funds.
“I have significant concerns about providing services to students who need them,” she said. Szymaniak agreed that the use of para-professionals does need to be re-evaluated. “We front-loaded this year and we front-loaded for FY ’23, and it’s going to give us two years to really evaluate if we need the amount of paras that we have.”
Regarding the behavioral specialist, Szymaniak said that, while there is a need for on this year, it isn’t clear if it will be needed by 2025. Small said he was not questioning the need, just whether there is another dollar source to fund it. He suggested looking the ESSER funds as a two-or three-year plan the district can wean itself off.
Szymaniak termed ESSER funds a “blessing and a curse,” because they are sent as “free money” but can only be used once, leaving school districts trying to decide how to spend that money.
While there has been an overall decrease in the number of special education students, there has been an increase in needs among the students in the district, Szymaniak said during discussion of the program’s budget impact. Stanbrook said $1.7 million projected to be left in Circuit Breaker is the amount forecast to remain in the account at the end of fiscal ’22 as the amount the district is required to spend in fiscal ’23. The official filing for fiscal ’23 has not been done yet, so a definite figure is not known at this point.
Whitman Selectman Randy LaMattina said that, the school budget as presented would deplete E&D by 2025 and creating a $1.5 million deficit.
“I’m not here to speak on the validity of the services you’re asking for … I truly believe they will make our district stronger,” he said. “I’m here to speak on how reckless this budget actually is. You will not only put services at risk by using one-time money, you’ll be putting teachers’ careers at risk.”
He said a plan is needed and suggested that the obvious plan is that an override would be needed.
“As a citizen of [Whitman], I ask you to come up with a better plan to put forward, rather then risk services, because I think that is what this does, ultimately, in 2025,” LaMattina said.
Szymaniak agreed that sustainability and planning are important.