The School Committee on Wednesday, March 25 delayed a vote on the budget for another week.
Chairman Bob Hayes told members that he had received several calls and emails requesting a delay in a vote on the budget until the public could attend a meeting.
“I was shocked at the phone calls and emails I got,” Hayes said. “I’m not saying not to do this, I’m just throwing it out there to see how the rest of you thought about this.”
School Committee member Fred Small said residents could email their questions or written statements to the Superintendent’s Administrative Assistant Michelle Lindberg to be read at the Wednesday, April1 meeting.
The “drop-dead” date for a budget vote has changed to April 30.
“We’re stretching it that way,” Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said. “We’re really supposed to get something to the towns 30 days prior to Town Meeting.”
That date would be April 4 if Whitman does not push its meeting beyond the original May 4 date as Hanson has [see related story]. Szymaniak also wants to see what the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is recommending based on legislation Gov. Charlie Baker has filed pertaining to regional schools.
“We can talk budget today, but there is a little more flexibility right now because of where we are with the [corona]virus and things changing so rapidly,” Szymaniak said, noting that the extra time would provide time for the district to consult with legal counsel about the DESE regional schools legislation now pending.
“Where we’re still waiting for some financial numbers of our own, and we’re not 100-percent confident of where we stand, I would think it would be prudent to get the gist of those questions before we move forward to voting a budget,” Small said. “I believe we’ve got to do it, and the sooner we do it the better, but I think we need the answers to those questions, as well.”
Cullity agreed, arguing that taking $100,000 from excess and deficiency to fund deep cleaning of the schools will hamstring the committee’s ability to use E&D for budget shortfalls and for the line item to rebound later.
A level-service budget would mean 37 staff members cut — 48 when the cost of unemployment benefits are calculated into the final number of $65,000 per staff member ina $1.3 million to $2.9 million budget cut. There are 44 teachers and Whitman Middle School alone.
“If we cut 48 it will be like closing a whole building,” Szymaniak said. “It would blow up class size. It would affect every school.”
Hanson members of the School Committee indicated they are still waiting for an update on the work being done to seek a compromise on the assessment formula before they are ready to vote on a budget. Small said he understood that stance, but stressed both towns should be encouraged to continue talking, but time is running out.
“We come up with a budget and, how it’s funded is up to the towns to battle it out,” Small said. Committee member Dawn Byers agreed.
“It’s up to us to set an educationally sound budget,” Byers said.
She suggested a discussion of sports user fees or student parking fees in any decision toward raising revenue. She also urged towns to look at fees for non-mandated school bus ridership.
“The fact that we talked about all along was there would be a compromise,” member Christopher Howard said of the assessment formula. “The fact that it’s looking like Whitman would have that [May 4] Town Meeting would, to me, indicate that we should be at a point of compromise.”
Without a compromise, Howard said he was willing to continue discussions, but his opinion would not change. Committee Vice Chairman Christopher Scriven said that is a reasonable expectation.
Small asked that Szymaniak hold a Zoom meeting with the town administrators to find out where the compromise discussion stands. Szymaniak agreed to do so.
“From what I’m hearing from DESE and our attorney, there is no legal precedent if we don’t get a budget out of committee,” Szymaniak said.
Hanson Selectmen Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett texted to Hayes that nothing has been discussed recently because town officials have been busy dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. But a conversation can take place in order to update the committee on April 1.