The School Committee on Wednesday, April 22, again failed to set a fiscal 2021 budget figure as the assessment formula impasse continues.
The committee voted 5 to 4 against setting a budget number of $55,320,238. Committee members Steven Bois, Dawn Byers, Dan Cullity, Fred Small and Alexandria Taylor voted in favor of Byers’ motion for a $55,320,238 budget, including the return of four teachers cut last year. Christopher Howard, Michael Jones, Christopher Scriven and Chairman Bob Hayes voted no. Member Robert O’Brien Jr., was not present. Hayes said his no votes were because of expected information from the state by the end of the week.
“There’s no ‘win’ in this, this isn’t a game,” he said. “We’re trying to do the best we can and there’s 10 of us.’
Two-thirds of the full committee must vote in favor of a budget for it to pass.
In the fiscal 2020 budget, the bottom line was $52,425,738. The required budget without the added four teaching positions is $55,040,237 — a 5-percent increase equating to $2,614,499.
Small moved that the budget be set at $55,040,237, which was also rejected by a 5 to 4 vote. Bois, Cullity, Small and Taylor voted in favor of the lower number with Byers joining Howard, Jones Scriven and Hayes in voting no.
Taylor asked if she was correct in her conclusion that there was no number Hanson members would support unless they heard something different from the committee regarding an assessment compromise.
“That is true,” Jones said. “Until Whitman makes a deal with our selectmen, we’re not going to vote yes.”
“Excuse me for being rude, but I think that’s extremely irresponsible,” Taylor said. “We need to set a number.”
“That’s your opinion,” Jones said. “You’re going to set a budget that Hanson’s going to oppose and [for] years and years, that’s going to have negative effects on our district. We’re looking at the bigger picture.”
Taylor said she is losing patience with the committee, even as she sympathizes with Hanson’s position. Howard has asked for the assessment discussion to be placed on this week’s agenda.
Byers opposed the lower figure as failing to address class size requirements before the schools reopen in the fall to students returning for the first time since mid-March.
“I believe setting this budget does meaningfully protect our students, because what it does is tell Commissioner Riley that we believe in what our students need,” Byers said in support if the $55,320,238. “We know what they need, we know what our teachers need, and that’s what we’re voting for.”
Cullity argued waiting another four or five weeks to set a budget would accomplish nothing, reminding the committee that its job is to set a budget that the towns are charged with voting on it.
“I’m not saying this is it, and it can’t change,” Cullity said about the budget number. “We shouldn’t be taking things away from the kids. We’ve got to throw it at the towns and see what the towns say.”
Small agreed, arguing that setting a budget now would not avoid a 1/12 budget, but towns need information.
“I firmly believe, based on the new information from the superintendent, the changing times, the $53 million and change as a budget is the bare-bones of what these kids need,” Small said. “To do anything else … would not be a responsible act. Let’s give the towns the number.”
Howard countered that he would like to see an agenda item next week that allows a vote on rescinding the statutory assessment formula, allowing Hanson officials to come up with a compromise. He argued that Whitman’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude would decimate the district.
“As a committee, we have to put forth that [budget number] to the towns to vote on it,” Cullity said. “But we can’t keep taking away from the school system. We have to set the goal and give them what we think the children of the region need.”
Whether both towns approve that budget number is not up to the School Committee, their job is to inform the tows as to what the schools need.
“We still need to get a budget out of committee,” he said, arguing a compromise is unlikely this year. “Then, if it’s denied, it’s brought back to us again to discuss, but hen we really have to take on a bigger role of what is going to happen to the future of this school district.”
While agreeing that the committee’s role is to support the district as much as possible, Scriven, like Small, Cullity and Byers, a Whitman resident, argued there has not been a concerted effort in good faith from Whitman to come up with a compromise.
Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak. “The challenge is … we’re getting conflicting guidance with COVID and the fact that town meetings are moving around … on how a 1/12 budget will look for regional schools.” Some towns within regional districts aren’t going to have town meetings until June or July, if they can have them, he related.
Because schools will not reopen for the rest of the year, Szymaniak is compiling cost estimates from facilities, athletics honorariums for spring varsity coaches who have been working to keep students engaged. But he expects to see savings in athletics, regular building cleaning costs and utilities.
“We just don’t know those savings yet,” he said.
Whitman Selectman Randy LaMattina had asked in a letter to Christine Lynch of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) about the problems in agreeing to a budget, specifically whether if, under a 1/12 budget, Whitman could end up providing more payments than last year, ultimately giving the distict more than level-funding in fiscal 2021.
Lynch responded that many, if not most, regional school districts will be operating under a 1/12 budget this yea, and that DESE would soon be issuing guidelines to help districts and member towns navigate the process.
The commissioner of education would set a budget that is, generally, not less than the previous fiscal year’s, but member assessments would change from the previous fiscal year due to changes in minimum local contributions, enrollment shares and potential changes in state aid.
Further guidance was expected to be issued Friday, April 24, prompting Hayes to schedule another School Committee meeting for Wednesday, April 29 (after the Express goes to press).
Szymaniak said he may be able to recoup costs of COVID-related expenses from cleaning and safety equipment, but it takes time to process state and federal paperwork. Because van drivers who work with North River Collaborative are furloughed, he also expects a 50-percent savings in special education transportation costs for the remainder of the school year. North River teachers are still working and paraprofessionals are either engaging with students or working on required professional development benchmarks and are being paid, even while the students are not being transported.
Cafeteria workers were being furloughed on Monday, April 27.
Now that school is out, the lack of preschool and kindergarten tuition will create a deficit in those programs.
Small asked if other school budget lines were being examined for potential cost savings.
“We’re going to look at everything, not that it’s official,” Szymaniak said about the decision to keep schools closed. “We will have some savings. I just don’t have those dollar figures now.”
Byers suggested that, when the 450 Chromebooks out on loan to students are returned, the district would likely be faced with repair or replacement costs for damaged units.
“Not only repairs and replacement, but we’re going to have to clean them,” Hayes said. “It doesn’t sound like much, but the cleanliness of these buildings is all going to come into play before September.”
Assistant Superintendent George Ferro raised the question of what schools would have to do if student desks have to be placed six feet apart in September.
A 1/12 budget based on fiscal 2020, could result in the loss of 48 more people, including unemployment costs, with an impact on class size across the district, Szymaniak said.
“Coming off of a timeframe where kids haven’t been in a classroom since March, that’s a tremendous effect on student learning in this district,” he said.
“I think it’s best that we hold off and get as much information as we can,” said Scriven. “The more we educate ourselves, the better.”