Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak presented a preliminary fiscal 2024 budget to the School Committee at it’s Wednesday, Dec. 21 meeting.
“This is really a prelim budget — it’s a snapshot right now for the committee,” he said, noting the budget subcommittee has said it can’t really discuss the budget until the whole committee receives a snapshot, an idea of where the district finances stand.
“I’m looking at a $60,984,583 dollar budget as of today,” Szymaniak said of what represents a 4.19-percent increase over the current budget. The district has tried to keep the increase to 3 percent every year in the interest of fairness to the towns, and, if a state-mandated 14 percent increase in special education tuition [see below] could be eliminated, the WHRSD budget increase is back to 3 percent, he said.
“Basically, this a level-service budget plus the special education increase,” Szymaniak said.
According to current budget assumptions, Hanson’s operating assessment would likely be going up 7.88 percent and Whitman’s increasing by 8.52 percent, according to Business Manager John Stanbrook.
“When we tried to build a budget to support the fiscal needs and the emotional needs — everything around our students — we have the towns in our sights of what can be affordable, and a 3-percent increase in our budget didn’t seem outrageous,” he said. “We’ll do everything we can to move things around to see where these numbers flesh out by March 17, when we have to vote this budget, but this is the number that I’m at right now if we had to do what we have to do with projections. There are some moving parts to this as we move forward.”
Reimbursable transportation is 75 cents on the dollar, but he said is not certain what the reimbursement for circuit breaker will be at this point. Excess and deficiency funds have not been certified, either, at this point.
Select boards and finance committees in both towns have also been asking for numbers to help them formulate their budgets, Szymaniak added.
“A lot of this is projection,” he said, thanking Stanbrook for his work on the budget and the district’s bookkeeping systems. “This isn’t set in stone. This is what we’re projecting now and, as we all know, we get to the final budget in March.”
Last year’s budgetary focus areas were universal tuition-free full-day kindergarten, one-to-one devices for students and a robust related arts program. Szymaniak said the committee knew it would be able to put two of those things in the fiscal 2023 budget.
Focus areas for fiscal 2024 are:
• School start times;
• Innovation pathways and early college;
• A robust K-8 related arts program; and
• School culture and climate.
“Some of these are in effect into this budget, some of these necessarily don’t affect our budget overall,” he said, nodding to culture/climate and innovation pathways. Szymaniak said high school principal Dr. Christopher Jones is working on the early college goal and the district is looking into a state grant to bring the innovation pathways to the schools.
The budget proposal goals and purpose is to: support students educational needs, along with the district’s operational needs; maintain current pre-K to 12 staffing levels; continued addressing of academic and social-emotional regression due to COVID-19; provide special education programs to retain students in-district; provide English-learners the support they need for success; address school start times; and add a robust K-8 related arts program.
Enrollment is down from 3,903 students in 2017 to 3,556 in 2022.
This year enrollment is projected to be 3,541.
“We didn’t see that decline that we’ve seen in the past,” Szymaniak said of this year’s numbers. “We seem to have leveled off, you’re not going to see that dip anymore.”
Enrollment numbers are sent to the state each October. The state then determines what numbers can be used for calculating assessments after separating out school choice students for whom W-H pays other districts.
Under the heading of budget assumptions, Szymaniak said salaries and expenses are up 3 percent, but he added that’s not necessarily an accurate number. Towns’ required contributions to hold harmless are up 5 percent.
Non-mandated busing numbers are firmer, and the town student split is 60.61 percent from Whitman and 39.31 percent from Hanson, although that is still a hypothetical figure, Szymaniak cautioned.
“It’s not our charge to determine the towns’ finances,” said Committee member Hillary Kniffen. “Our job is to determine the best services for the students, who don’t have the voices, who can’t go and vote — most of them — and I think it’s problematic when we’re talking about running an override for a budget that hasn’t been presented.”
Szymaniak plans to work with the budget subcommittee for the budget public hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 1 when all the charts, documents and other information for the public.
The district will try using Esser III funding to move some people the district sees as essential into the 2024-25 budget, Szymaniak said, because the funding goes away by September 2024.
“There has been some talk that it might be extended to 2026, but right now, I’m not seeing anything like that,” Szymaniak said.
Instructional support needs also need to be solidified.
The next regular School Committee meeting is Wednesday, Jan. 11.
“We can talk budget, or it can just be a general meeting,” he said. On Thursday, Jan. 12 there is a joint meeting with both select boards and communities before the Feb. 1 public hearing. The School Committee meets on Wednesday, Feb. 15 and Gov. Maura Healey’s inaugural budget is released publicly on Wednesday, March 1.
Szymaniak proposed having a School Committee meeting on Wednesday, March 8, with another slated for March 15. The deadline to submit a budget to the towns by the required 45 days before town meetings.
A Wednesday, April 5 School Committee meeting is planned as well as one on Wednesday, April 25 ahead of town meetings, if needed. Town meetings are slated for Monday, May 1.
“We can add meetings in, we can move things around, but that’s the timeline I see from past practice about the number of meetings we may or may not need, based upon how much work we can get done in the month of February,” Szymaniak said.
“This budget is not extravagant,” said member Dawn Byers. “We know, based on other communities, these were not above average or below, but we’ve done a really good job. To put forth the real cost of education – not using one-time funds, and not cutting curriculum that we need to have there is super important.”