The School Committee, on Wednesday, Dec. 22 decided to table a suggestion that the district contribute to the cost, as a gesture of support, of an independent audit planned by both Whitman and Hanson officials.
The School Committee plans to revisit the issue at it’s Wednesday, Jan. 12 meeting.
Committee members expressed concern about the funding needed and the added workload on an already taxed financial crew at the main office.
“From my perspective, I think I would encourage both towns to do the audit,” School Committee Chairman Christopher Howard said.
He updated the committee, reporting that both select boards have seen discussion on their plans for independent audits of the school district’s financial operations.
He said Business Manager John Stanbrook has already identified things that the district could improve on.
“I’d really like to show support for the towns in doing that audit, because one of two things is going to happen,” Howard said. “Either we’re going to get an audit and it’s going to show that there isn’t any additional items to look at, or we’re going to flush all this out – as John is presently doing – and identify things that are going to make us better or things that we need to improve.”
As a gesture of good faith, he encouraged the school panel to take on one third of the cost, with excess and deficiency as the funding source. He said the audits should, indeed, be done independently and the School Committee should get the results.
Committeee member Steve Bois said he liked the idea of paying one-third of the cost, not so anyone could think they are trying to have an impact on the audit, but to relieve some of the impact on the towns.
“We all come together in the end, and I think this is the same type of thing,” Bois said. “We all come together and we’re pulling in all of our resources, they’re pooling all their resources – we’re just going to know.”
School Committee member Dawn Byers was also concerned about the perception of the committee’s motives in paying one-third of the audit cost.
“I wholeheartedly welcome the audit and open doors,” she said. “I think it will restore public confidence in our community because there have been so many questions over the past couple of years.”
Byers, who works in the accounting field, said an audit is going to be a tremendous amount of work.
Howard said he views it as a consulting opportunity from which the district can learn something as the towns are looking to review financial operations and some of the issues that have been uncovered over the past few years.
Byers also noted there are several kinds of audits and suggested that it might be an idea to determine the type of audit intended.
“We’re trying to get by the surprises of, we have an assessment issue, what John has uncovered in terms of how we’re doing circuit breaker, other things that we can identify,” Howard said. “Let’s get them all flushed out now.”
Assistant Superintendent George Ferro said they also have to think of the effect of all the work now being done by the 4.5 people in the business and HR departments.
“When this happens, it is going to be a massive undertaking, one that we will participate in, but I think I would be remiss if I didn’t speak on behalf of the people who work tirelessly everyday for this budget, do their best … come to work and so this is going to take place, which is fine,” Ferro said. “But I do think we need to reflect on is there the human capacity in that department to do whatever audit somebody else wants and still perform the job that we have to.”
Howard said he thought about that before he broached to topic with Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak before the meeting.
“It starts with the understanding of what needs to be done,” he said.
Szymaniak said he fully supports the audit, as well.
“Tell me what we’re doing right, tell me what we’re doing wrong,” he said. “A fresh set of eyes always helps us grow. … I can’t fix it if I don’t know it’s broken.”
School Committee member Beth Stafford also expressed concern over the additional work being put on fewer people in the district’s main office.
“I’m having mixed emotions about the whole thing because of the fact of putting more work on our already busy personnel,” she said.
Howard said the committee could delay a decision until the Jan. 12 meeting if members wanted to think about it more, which they decided to do.
The School Committee also approved a job description, based largely on one recently approved in Marshfield, for a bilingual family liaison position.
“In 2010 I would never have thought we’d have a need for a bilingual family liaison – we had nine students in-district that were classified as EL, now we’re in the 90s and we could be up to 130, depending on their classification of where they’re at in their fluidity in the English language,” Szymaniak said. “I don’t know if this person’s out there.”
Starting as a part-time post, Szymaniak said one of the reasons it is needed is that there are students in the district recently arrived from Brazil and this is their first New England winter and students are coming to school not dressed for the weather.
“The culture of students in Brazil is a little more rough-and-tumble than American students,” he said, noting that playground games are leading to misunderstandings. “The students are getting into trouble because there’s nobody to explain to a parent, necessarily, what it’s like to be in Whitman or Hanson or Massachusetts.”
Principals have asked for the service for that reason and others, such as the recent uptick in parents who don’t speak English and the increasing diversity of the district.
“I assume this is going to be a full-time job,” Szymaniak said but he wants to pilot it on a part-time basis.
“The biggest issue is the outreach when new students are identified,” said Ferro, who added that the need for additional staff will also be looked at because the district is “running thin.”
“This is just the link back to the family to make them comfortable,” he said.
Budgeting to pay for the position is the next step, Szymaniak said.
A dress code change would allow students to wear “multiple types of headgear without restriction” except for obscene and profane language was also approved.
Principal Dr. Christopher Jones said the change started with allowing students to wear do-rags, bonnets and other headcoverings of that type and is expanding to include baseball caps in the interest of having an equitable policy.
Byers congratulated Jones for bringing the change forward and voiced her approval for it.
“My concern is still going back to the original dress code policy that we have,” she said. Part of the handbook guidelines are not enforceable because the district does not have a policy per se, she said.
The policy committee is looking at the dress code in their work this year.
“As we became a more diverse community, it came to our attention that some students were wearing do-rags in school and were sent down [to the office for discipline] for violating the handbook for having headcoverings,” he said. “In speaking to and listening to those students and then educating ourselves … we came to the conclusion that we needed to do something about it as far as allowing them to wear do-rags.”
He said enforcing policy can be tricky because violations have to be proven to cause a disturbance to the educational environment.
Several surrounding districts either allow hats and sweatshirt hoods, or still have dress codes prohibiting the headgear, but look the other way. Jones said that rather that have an unenforced dress code, it should be revised. W-H will not be permitting hoods at this time.