The School Committee heard a spending update from interim business manager John Tuffy regarding the 1/12 budget under which the district has been operating since July 1. The 1/12 budget is in effect unless and until town meetings approve a school budget next week. This district cannot deficit spend.
“Income hasn’t been an issue in the past,” Tuffy said. “This is a very different time that we have now.”
That presentation, during the Wednesday, July 15 meeting, followed a review of the region’s assessment problem by Whitman School Committee member Fred Small.
“We need to be as transparent as possible,” said Small. “We need to be forthright with the public, and we all need to find some way to all come together because we have a lot of children’s lives at risk and their education is at risk — and education is life.”
He said he was a volunteer official who did his best, and apologized to residents and promised never to take the word of school administration — and that his new motto would be trust, but verify.
“There’s been finger-pointing back and forth in both towns,” Small. “The residents of our towns bear no burden in this.”
He recalled a Whitman resident speaking to him in 2016 about the town’s paying $200,000 to $300,000 too much annually in the budget for schools. He brought the concern to Chairman Bob Hayes who, Small said, responded that he was informed it was a “swinging number” and minor in a $50 million budget.
He relayed that information back to the resident along with the advice that the superintendent would be the best person to reach out to. In 2017-18 a Regional Agreement Committee was formed to review that document and the Mass. Association of Regional Schools (MARS) was hired to redraft the agreement, making it legal to today’s standards.
“I would encourage everybody to go back, watch the meetings and draw your own conclusions as to some of the verbiage that was used,” Small said,
A Whitman Selectman asked him last March which assessment method was being used by the district. He asked the same question of the district’s business manager and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. He was told by both the district and DESE that the statutory method was used and he reported that to Whitman Selectmen.
“Over the following months, it was determined, and I’m not sure who did the physical math … that the statutory method was never being used,” Small recounted.
The district administration investigated and the business manager was placed on leave in September 2019. Months of discussions on the impact and a presentation on the assessment formulas from DESE followed that.
“The discussions about the compromise and its impact continue to this day,” he said. “In January 2020 the School Committee had been informed that an agreement had been reached,”
In an executive session, the details of which may now publicly be discussed, the business manager was paid through March 31 and the former business manager and the district mutually agreed not to disparage each other.
“When we were told this I did strenuously object to any type of agreement,” Small said. “The towns have been partners for a long time, you can’t blame one town over another.”
He stressed that the calculations in question were performed during a prior school administration.
Tuffy reviewed the current cash flow situation within a 1/12 budget based exactly on what the district spent in fiscal 2020 — $4,368,000 per month — but the assessments will be based on assumptions made when the fiscal 2021 budget was calculated. Any funds not spent in July are added to the allotment available in August and so on through the year.
“If we were a private business, we’d talk about burn rate — how fast do we go through our money?” he said. The first billing warrant processed for fiscal ’21 is just over $2.1 million.
He said that is unusual and due to a lot of subscription fees to technology products and the $1.2 million assessment from Plymouth County Retirement.
A teacher payroll during the school year runs about $1.5 million.
“We certainly don’t expect to have any issues through July and August, but once we start to get into September, if we’re still in a 1/12 budget, we’re going to have to be careful how we move forward and maybe talking to the state about some form of relief,” Tuffy said.
Hanson member Christopher Howard said, regarding Town Meeting that there seems to be misinformation and/or confusion in his community between the correlation between the budget article and the assessment methodology.
“It seems like there are some folks that are suggesting that [people should] vote no against the budget article because they don’t like the assessment methodology and that’s really not accurate at all,” he said. “It really takes both towns to agree.”
He stressed the Town Meeting vote concerns the budget, not the assessment formula.
Hanson member Hillary Kniffen agreed there is confusion and asked if another town meeting could be held in both towns before September. Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said a lot will be determined by the result of the town meetings and cash flow within the 1/12 budget.
“We’re trying to open school in a pandemic and the thought of losing 40 positions or being level-funded is challenging,” he said. “This isn’t a joke. This is real. I don’t have the money.”
Chapter 70, regional transportation and Circuit Breaker funding is also uncertain.