The School Committee approved a fiscal 2024 budget of $60,638,657.69 an increase of 3.67 percent over last year, on Wednesday, March 15. The spending plan adds foreign language and STEM/robotics programs to a level-services package.
Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak had presented the level-service budget of $60,485,257.69 – an increase of 3.41 percent over last year – but said his recommendation was that $153,400 for foreign language Option 1 and a STEM/robotics curriculum be added to it.
The foreign language option costs $98,400, which would add $60,083.04, or .36-percent increase for Whitman, and $38,316.96, or a .29-percent increase in grades six through eight and to add robotics in K-grade eight curricula.
STEM and robotics costs $55,000, which would add $33,583 – or a .2 percent-increase to Whitman’s budget and $21,417 to Hanson’s budget for 1.6 percent increase to Hanson.
“At minimum, I recommend this committee sets the budget at $60,485,257.69 – or a 3.41-percent increase – but seriously consider adding foreign language Option 1 and STEM and robotics, which adds $153,400, or adjusting the budget to $60,638,675.69, to put us at an overall increase of 3.67 percent over last year,” Szymaniak said. He said the committee has heard from students and curriculum administrators about how students are progressing.
“I think they need opportunities as presented, but at minimum stick with our level service and a 3.41-percent increase to our budget,” he said. “I felt I need the committee to know where we’re at. … You’ve been able to see what the towns have presented us and, I appreciate what they’ve presented us.”
“My fear is the towns just don’t have the funds,” said member Fred Small, noting that Whitman had penciled in a 5-percent increase in the assessment. “I just don’t know where they come up with the money to pay.”
Hanson’s interim Town Accountant’s letter indicated even a 3-percent increase would leave them with deficits, Small said.
“One of two things happens, it’ll get shot down on the Town Hall floor, or their going to divvy is up and push it on an override,” he said. “My opinion is, if it comes to an override I’’d rather see us hold firm.”
Vice Chair Christopher Scriven said he came to discuss and vote on assessments as it stated in the agenda, to have the extra consideration of language and STEM/robotics program costs at that point made him pause and need time to consider it.
“I don’t know if I’m really ready to consider this,” Scriven said.
Chair Howard said a budget had to be voted that night.
“I’ve presented a budget with those two options in February, and they’ve been there,” Szymaniak said. “It’s something the committee doesn’t have to approve.”
He said district counsel Andrew Waugh recommended the budget not be increased after March 15.
Small, while supporting the students supported the original level-service budget minus the lanquages and STEM/robotics because the towns’ fiscal positions are so tenuous.
Member Beth Stafford stressed that, while the towns are facing financial challenges, the committee and school district are not asking the towns to foot the bill for the data breach they had last summer.
“This is level-service,” she said. “Level service is not always the greatest thing, folks [it] means you don’t go anywhere further.”
She also noted the familiar territory of the strain between town and school committee roles.
“This is the conversation that always comes up,” Stafford said. “And the conversation is, ‘What’s our job here on the School Committee?’ Yes, we represent the towns, but our main focus is the students and what we have to do.”
Member Dawn Byers noted the budget doesn’t address start times or strengthening the school-community connection, but while they could do better, she said the budget reflects the real cost of the district’s needs for education. She also argued that an increase of 3.41 percent is below what both towns have certified with the DOR as their annual municipal revenue growth factor – 4 percent for Whitman and 3.9 percent for Hanson this year.
Whitman Selectmen Shawn Kain and Justin Evans also weighed in on the school budget.
Kain said the hold-harmless situation created the “tragic dilemma” for the towns.
“Because we’ve been in hold-harmless for so long, we aren’t getting enough state aid t sustain the budget,” he said. “That’s the answer. That’s it.”
The situation frequently pits town departments and the school district against each other at Town Meeting, often forcing a decision between funding other town departments or seeking an override.
Evans said the 4.3 percent projected municipal revenue growth comes to a bit less than $1.7 million of total growth to spend everywhere.
Between the level-service plus two additional programs for the schools and the Plymouth County retirement assessment of about $300,000, all that money is used, he said.
Finance Committee member Kathlen Ottina, however urged the committee to hold fast to Szymaniak’s recommendation.
“It’s early in the budget process,” she said. “We still have budgets to be heard at the Finance Committee level and, if you don’t ask for it tonight, you can’t ask for it later.”
Member David Forth advocated for the language and technology programs to prepare for the long-term needs of educating students for the future.
“If we don’t add services now, we kick the can once again for level services,” he said. “What are we doing next year? … We really need to think about the long-term aspect.”
Howard said figures reviewed the five-year in September that included a budget with a 3.13 percent increase for level services.
“Our students are not getting anything more with this budget,” member Hillary Kniffen said. “A level-serviced budget is the best that we have. The cost of educating children has increased.”
“I will not accept that there’s a surprise when we start talking about some of these numbers because we’ve talked about them for over a year,” he said.
Szymaniak said the South Shore Superintendent’s group met with legislators and informed them how problematic a 14-percent increase in out-of-district special education tuition was, but he has not included that increase in the FY ’24 budget.
The final figure is still to be determined, he said.
“They’re bringing some of those thoughts back to the House,” Szymaniak said. “However, if nothing is done, we will receive tuition bills this summer, and we’re obligated to pay them.”
The committee, last year, decided to keep a one-year Circuit Breaker allowance in reserve to either apply to the following fiscal year’s budget or to use it for extenuating costs or circumstances.
A portion it is being used for the budget and a portion will be used for the latter, using them once they are appropriated in October to pay off the debt for that increase.
“I’m hoping it won’t be 14 percent, but I doubt that it will be the 3 percent that I allocated within the budget,” Szymaniak said. “Best case, it may be 7 [percent].”
If Circuit Breaker is not needed, it will go toward the FY ’25 budget next year.
Where excess and deficiency is concerned, $1.718 million is in that account, and the district will have to access $605,000 to pay invoices in excess of our insurance coverage to make the district whole in the wake of the computer and data breach it sustained in July 2022.
“We’re not going to the towns to make us whole from that breach,” he said. “The transfer will leave $1.13 million in E&D for FY ’24.”
Whitman has made its town budget available to the district and information has been received from Hanson regarding the funds they have earmarked for the district.
Member Steve Bois agreed with Howard that the committee has had all the numbers and criteria for the budget.
“We can do better,” she said. “It’s not in this budget right now, but we have room for improvement.”