The School Committee on Monday, June 29 discussed the current budget picture under a 1/12 budget.
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak clarified that the 6-4 vote in December was to provide him and Assistant Superintendent George Ferro with a method of assessment to bring to the communities in February.
The schools began working within a 1/12 budget on Wednesday, July 1 — using fiscal ’21 cherry sheet numbers — puts the operating budget for Hanson, under the state-required statutory method, at $11,397,219.16 and for Whitman, it would be $14,259,517.84.
The Hanson’s overall assessment under a 1/12 budget, with $350,000 in excess and deficiency and another $700,000 in circuit breaker money, would be $11,156,979.16 and Whitman’s would be $13,899,757.84.
Using fiscal 2020 numbers, with no E&D funds, overall assessment under a 1/12 budget would be $11,374,413.46 and Whitman’s would be $14,392,243.54. If the commissioner allows the district to use E&D, circuit breaker and cherry sheet funds, Hanson’s would be $11,134,173.46 and Whitman’s would be $14,032,483.54.
The fiscal ’21 budget sent to the communities was $55,320,238 and the compromise assessment was $11,745,020.21 for Hanson and $16,206,216.79 — using E&D and circuit breaker funds.
Szymaniak still wants to use those numbers at town meetings.
“It was a non-binding vote,” Szymaniak said of the 6-4 vote. “The only binding vote can be a two-thirds majority of the … School Committee on the vote and the assessment methodology.”
He stressed that the 9-1 vote was not statutory and was not an agreement, it was an amendment to the agreement put forth in May to both communities for the fiscal 2021 budget. Both communities, in turn, have to approve the method of assessment at both town meetings.
Szymaniak said Christine Lynch of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) told him there was nothing illegal about that vote.
“It’s challenging to explain that,” he said. “But the only way a budget comes out of committee is two-thirds majority. This committee voted a two-thirds majority [for] the compromise, which was a combination of statutory and agreement, and you voted a budget. It was 9-1.”
Lynch confirmed that the committee did nothing wrong. Only 10 regional districts in the state are now using the agreement methods with DESE now requiring boards of selectmen to sign off on it when their towns approve it.
Given financial storm clouds they see on the horizon, committee members did not favor taking any more money out of excess and deficiency — which is needed for emergency expenses.
Business Manager John Tuffy said the commissioner of education will set a budget that represents an expenditure limit. It doesn’t tell what the funds can be spent on — just the total amount that can be spent based on the current fiscal 2020 budget.
Payroll adjustments will be needed because of the cost of salaries that won’t be met by the 1/12 budget, Szymaniak said. The law requires that, without a budget, all non-professional status teachers had to be sent a reduction in force letter until a budget is approved. The district sent out 117 RIF letters.
“We never said we were reducing 117 teachers,” said Committee Chairman Bob Hayes. “Hear me clearly, we never said that. We said we were reducing in force roughly 40 teachers and staff.”
“This wasn’t a bluff,” Szymaniak said. “That’s not a tactic I’m going to use.”
The disctrict has also been reduced in bond rating from a AA to AA- based on the low level of cash in excess and deficiency.
Szymaniak began his report to the committee by commenting on “vile” remarks about and photos of him posted on social media over the weekend.
“It’s First Amendment rights and I’m not going to tell people to not express themselves,” he said. “But I really wanted to thank the members of both communities who emailed me and Facebook messaged me [as] a show of support in the values and ethics that I put forward and the commitment that I have for the kids of both of these communities.”
The district is being asked by the state to formulate multiple re-opening plans — fully remote, a hybrid plan, full day with restrictions and home school. [See page 2].
The first day of school has been pushed back to Sept. 8 with teachers given a start date of Aug. 27 and 28 and three professional development days Sept. 1 to 3. Snow days will be used as remote learning days.
“Parent still aren’t sure of the difference between remote school and home school,” Szymaniak said.
To home school children, parents must submit a letter to the district asking permission to do so along with the curriculum they plan to use, while remote learning is the school’s teacher-driven distance learning program used this spring. Home-schooled children do not receive any school services.
Hybrid programs could, for example, bring students into school one week and teach remotely at home the next.
“It’s kind of nightmarish because we don’t know how many of our teachers are going to feel comfortable coming back to school to teach during COVID-19,” he said. “We don’t know how many students are going to be sent to school by their parents during this pandemic.”
Parents and teachers have been asked to complete a survey to glean that information. All plans must be submitted to DESE by mid-July.
Szymaniak said transportation arrangements are not yet decided.
“We don’t know how many of our staff are going to be returning,” he said. The prospect of laying off about two dozen teachers in the worst budget scenario “really challenges us.”
Measuring distances in actual classrooms, Szymaniak said it appears about 20 students can be fit into a high school classroom, but they have not yet done the elementary school. Class size — to be determined by the budget — will have an effect on that.
“We may not have enough staff,” he said. The district expected to hear the 1/12 budget number by June 30. A $250 per student stipend to cover PPE costs is also being worked on by the state. State Rep. Josh Cutler, D-Pembroke, is also working on funding of between $250,000 and $300,000 to beef up technology for remote learning.
Parents were asked to please return the survey to help make determinations on how the plans will be designed.
Szymaniak said the district is slowly working toward opening summer programs, but building use programs will not be allowed at the high school — except for district-run camps.
The W-H Regional School Committee welcomed its newest members, 19-year-old David Forth Jr., of Whitman, and Hillary Kniffen of Hanson — and congratulated returning incumbent member Steve Bois during the reorganizational meeting.
Szymaniak, presiding until a chairman was elected, also thanked Whitman’s Alexandria Taylor for her six years of service and Hanson’s Robert O’Brien Jr., for his nine years of work on the committee. Taylor was narrowly defeated in the Saturday, June 27 town elections and O’Brien opted not to seek re-election.
“It’s not an easy task, as those who have been here for many years know, but it is rewarding and you are here for the students,” Hayes said in his welcoming remarks to Kniffen and Forth.
“It’s great to see new faces on the committee,” Szymaniak said. “This is a great team to be on.”