The School Committee — divided along community lines — voted 6-4 on Wednesday, Dec. 11 to use the statutory formula for calculating the towns’ assessments for the fiscal 2021 school budget.
The six Whitman members supported the move and the four Hanson members voted against it.
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes outlined a Dec. 4 meeting of the new Regional Agreement Committee, including him and Vice Chairman Christopher Scriven, two members of each board of selectmen and school district and town administrators.
“It was a very lively discussion about the statutory method vs. the alternative method,” Hayes said. “It was all very valuable information with everybody sort of on the same page and working at it.”
The statutory method takes into account a town’s minimum per pupil expenditure designated by DESE — the minimum local contribution — which fluctuates based on inflation, wage adjustment, town’s total earned income, property values and municipal revenue growth. Anything in a budget over the minimum local contribution goes to the regional agreement, based on pupil population, for any other operating expense.
There is no requirement for unanimous agreement by both communities to use the statutory method.
The agreement/alternative method uses strict per-pupil representation to assess the communities, the method currently used by the district. Both communities have to pass the assessment methodology prior to the budget distribution or at town meeting in order to use this method. If one town does not vote the budget forward and the other does, it does not constitute unanimous agreement for the method to be used.
No votes were taken at what Hayes described as a largely organizational meeting until assessments were discussed. But by the end of that session the group agreed to ask the School Committee to temporarily disband the Regional Agreement Committee until the towns are ready to work on all aspects of the agreement.
The School Committee approved that motion unanimously. The Regional Agreement Committee had also asked the School Committee for its vote on the assessment method to be used in the fiscal 2021 budget. That required only a majority vote of the School Committee.
“What they didn’t want to do was violate any laws by having quorums and discussions that they could be having with each other,” Hayes said.
Scriven said he thought it was a “pretty positive dialog.”
Assistant Superintendent George Ferro characterized the request as an effort to formulate a budget this year and then come back to examine how the whole plan looks from a language, process and building perspective and look as long-term impact.
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said the assessment debates have taken up the bulk of attention over the past five months and that he was “struggling” with requests from both towns for an independent audit of their schools’ operating costs — and a town administrator’s suggestion that the school district needed to “tighten its belt.”
“I’ve been superintendent for a year and a half and I worked really hard last year to do what’s best for the kids,” Szymaniak said. “So, if you want to do an audit of what we do, bring it forth … but to question the integrity of both George and I — and this committee, who put forth a budget last year that cut $1.8 million — I’m offended by that.”
He said the cost of an audit could be better spent on Chromebooks for the high school.
School Committee member Christopher Howard of Hanson said he was concerned that none of the community representatives on the Regional Agreement Committee were present to offer their thoughts about the Dec. 4 session.
“All I can say is they specifically asked us to vote on this in and effort to kind of move forward,” Scriven said.
Whitman member Dawn Beyers expressed concern that disbanding the Regional Agreement Committee “allows them to have sub, sub, subgroups” and she would prefer to see open conversations.
Discussion of the assessment formula revealed that the two towns are still far apart on financing the school budget.
“It was implemented, really, to benefit all the children,” Byers also said of the statutory assessment formula. “As a committee, I’ll hope we’ll recognize our charge — it’s student achievement, it’s continuous student achievement, and we need to talk about how the availability of the statutory assessment does help our budget. It does help our students.”
She said that, as tighter budgets narrow what the district can offer, students will go elsewhere and it will ultimately cost W-H more.
Howard said it is the budget itself that is key, rather than the assessment method.
“The assessment is just how we’re charging the affected towns the cost,” he said.
Hayes said unfunded mandates have a huge impact, as well.
But Whitman member Dan Cullity was more blunt as discussion moved onto the next budget projections.
“To turn around and tell you to tighten the school budget belt — we’re the only department that’s cut, laid off, dropped services — I don’t think we can be tightening the belt any more than we have,” he said. “That really ticked me off, not only as a School Committee member, but as a citizen in the town of Whitman.”
He stressed that assessments to the towns do not necessarily reflect an increase in the school budget. He said either legislation to free up some of the state surplus to fund unfunded mandates, or tax increases would be needed to close the budget gap.
Cullity noted education is the only service required by the state constitution.
“I’m sorry, I’m here for the children — that’s why I was elected,” he said. “I don’t want to pay more taxes, [but] that’s the only way this is ever going to be resolved.”
Byers said W-H is not alone in dealing with unfunded mandates.
“It goes back to our towns and how they choose to support education,” she said.
Szymaniak said the preliminary fiscal 2021 budget is $57,492,938 — an increase of 9.66 percent or $5.9 million.
“That’s giving you what we need to move forward,” he told the committee. That figure includes full-day kindergarten, changing start times, reducing class size in elementary schools and other things that have been “talked about for years and years” that have been cut.
Required expenses total $2,291,200 — including salary increases. Special education transportation costs are up $275,000; special education tuition is up $110,000 and facilities costs are up.
Curriculum upgrades the district needs are also factored into the recommended budget.
“We’ve tightened our belts as much as we can,” Szymaniak said. “This committee has always supported kids and I ask them to continue to support kids. I know you are responsible to your local communities as well.”