As they await the outcome of ongoing talks between town officials and information on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the school budget, the School Committee on Wednesday, April 29 opted to pass over setting a budget figure.
The committee will meet again on May 13.
The discussion and votes followed an executive session at the beginning of the meeting, conducted remotely on the Zoom platform. The executive session was to discuss negotiating strategy or possible litigation concerning collective bargaining with the WHEA teachers’ Union.
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak sought to pass over discussion and action on the fiscal 2021 budget and local assessment because he is awaiting information on any revenue the district can expect from the early school closure forced by COVID-19.
The committee also voted to pass over a discussion about rescinding an earlier vote on the establishment of the statutory assessment method.
School Committee Vice Chairman Christopher Scriven of Whitman said he has heard that some “significant progress” has been made in compromise talks between the two towns.
“If we wait another week, it’s best to hold off and look to set the budget next week,” he said.
Member Dan Cullity, also of Whitman advocated waiting as town officials were slated to meet the next day.
“We’re not going to get anywhere talking about this budget because there’s no new information,” he said. “We’re just going to have the same fights … until we can get over this hurdle.”
If the district does not have a budget in place by June 1, school officials have to inform the Commissioner of Education. Since town meetings are not scheduled until June 15 in Hanson and late June for Whitman, Szymaniak said he will be drafting a letter advising him of that situation so the commissioner can start preparing a 1/12 budget for the district based on the FY 2020 and projected FY 2021 budgets and minimum local contributions and anticipated Chapter 70 funds set by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) for FY ’21.
“Right now we’re looking at every regional school district in the commonwealth not having a budget by July 1,” Szymaniak said. “I don’t know the process or the formula the commissioner is going to use for every district.”
Committee member Dawn Byers of Whitman argued the district should at least discuss athletics user fees in an effort to put academics first in a school budget.
Member Michael Jones of Hanson asked why she keeps bringing up the subject, when changes in such fees could cost the district students.
“If we lose more students to school choice, that’s a total loss,” he said.
Byers asked for more data on why families make the decision to take advantage of school choice. Small said that would have to go before the Policy Subcommittee for a decision before a decision on user fees is made.
Whitman member Alezandria Taylor also said user fees were not a good idea when a lot of families cannot even afford school lunches.
Revenues from preschool and extended day kindergarten tuitions have “taken a substantial hit,” according to Szymaniak.
“Before we can roll any revenues or money that we’re saving from the closure, [we need to] make sure we can cover the cost of providing salaries for paraprofessionals and teachers due to the loss of tuition that we either couldn’t process because we’re not in school, and all the tuition we have to refund because of the closure,” he said.
State Rep. Josh Cutler, D-Pembroke, has advised the district about federal grants administered by the states to municipalities covering any losses related to COVID-19 and the district is compiling as much information as possible for the application. Areas covered would include cleaning and technology.
Hanson member Robert O’Brien Jr., a deputy chief on the Hanson Fire Department, said FEMA also has funding opportunities for recouping salaries and other costs lost due to COVID-19.