The school district outlined its preliminary figures for a“reasonable budget” of $60,984,583 during a preliminary budget presentation to officials from both towns on Thursday, Jan. 12. That figure represents a 3 percent increase.
“My goal for tonight is to give both boards, both FinComs, the select boards in Hanson and Whitman an overview of what the regional school district budget looks like,” Superintendent of School Jeffrey Szymaniak said. “This is a preliminary overview that I shared with [the] School Committee Dec. 21, right before the winter break.”
Szymaniak made a presentation before Business Manager John Stanbrook spoke about the financial picture
“This is a level-service budget as presented,” Szymaniak said. “We are not adding any additional staff. We are, in this budget hopefully [reusing] retirement funds to be able to fund staffing positions that are currently in ESSER 2 and ESSER 3.”
ESSER 2 federal Coronavirus grants are expiring and ESSER 3 expire in September 2024.
Budget information, which had not been adjusted since the Dec. 21 meeting, are available on the school district website whrsd.org.
“Again, this is prelim, so we had to make some estimates going forward,” he said. “I also ask both [Select] boards to offer some grace in going forward. As you know, we’ve had some technical issues, dating back to July, and we are knee-deep – neck-deep – in W2s right now, to make sure our employee get their tax documents prior to Jan. 31.”
After Stanbrook completes that, the information will be made available at the Wednesday, Feb. 1 budget meeting. Szymaniak said the school district and committee are also in the process of developing a new five-year strategic plan for the district, which they hope will be approved by the School Committee this June.
Stanbrook said Hanson’s operating assessment is currently calculated at a 7.88 percent increase and Whitman’s at 8.52 percent higher.
District goals for the current budget were tuition-free, all-day kindergarten, one-to-one devices for students, a robust K-eight related arts program and an improved culture and climate in district schools. Szymaniak thanked both communities for supporting all-day kindergarten and making it possible for each student to have a [Chromebook] device on which to learn.
“We were not successful, necessarily, in putting forth a robust K-eight related arts program,” he said. “We’re still in motion on that, with a goal this year to potentially put it into the FY ’24 budget.”
School start times, if changed, and the related arts programs, will have a financial effect on the fiscal 2024 budget, innovation pathways toward early college courses will have no impact on the budget, he said.
The budget currently does not have the funds included to bring back foreign language to the middle school to the extent students would like to see [see related story, opposite].
Improving the culture and climate so that every student has an equitable experience in school, preK-to-age 22, has no financial implications, he said.
Szymaniak said class sizes are “better than they ever have been and students are achieving more than they have in the past,” and credited community support for budgets has meant lower class sizes, giving teachers more one-on-one opportunities to help students since 2010.
Retaining special education students in the district is another goal, as well as support for English language learners.
Enrollment is expected to maintain its current levels – at about 3,440 students – for the foreseeable future.
Salaries and expenses are being calculated to increase about 3 percent – but not across he board, but more to ensure salaries are not underfunded. Hold harmless requirements will increase the required town contributions by 5 percent and the town split for non-mandated busing is estimated at 60.61 for Whitman and 39.39 percent for Hanson.
A major questionmark remains the state’s special education tuition expectations.
Szymaniak said in December, he is looking at what represents or 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 could be eliminated, the WHRSD budget increase is back to 3 percent, he said.
Whitman Selectman Shawn Kain disagreed on the way the budget is being rolled out.
“We should have a revenue forecast,” he said. “We should come together and come to consensus about what we’re going to do about revenue … and then we should build our budget.”
He said a consensus is missing in the process, which creates tension in the community and between other departments and asked if the school department was looking for an override.
“I don’t know,” said Szymaniak, who stressed the budget is preliminary without state budget information, as well as from the towns. “What I would like to get is the budget forecast from both communities, because that hasn’t been presented to me in two years.”
He said he was targeting a 3 percent increase this year.
Whitman Select Board Chair Randy LaMattina said he respectfully disagreed that the schools had not received town financial forecasts, having provided a fiscal policy three years ago that gave up to a 5 –percent increase to the schools and 2.5 percent to other departments.
“We’ve not moved off that,” he said, noting that Whitman School Committee members have consistently reminded the district about it.
“It’s seems the understanding falls on you, Mr. Szymaniak, because you haven’t gotten it right yet,” he said. “The amount of money you just asked for in this budget is more than the town takes in.”
LaMattina said the purpose for financial forecasting is to enable the town to live with from year to year.
He also asked how many positions were paid for with onetime funds, information Szymaniak said he would have by the Wednesday, Feb. 1 public hearing on the budget.
Whitman Finance Committee member Kathleen Ottina said other town departments have also come in with higher numbers than the town could afford, because this is the preliminary stage of budgeting.
“I think the tone that’s beginning to escalate in this room needs to be ratcheded down,” she said. “We have to start somewhere. … We’re all good people who work very hard to do the right thing for everybody.
Hanson Selectman Jim Hickey the budget picture is similar to the age-old chicken-or-the-egg question.
“You’re waiting to get information from the towns in October 2022 to present something to the district, to the board, to the School Committee in January, but you’re not getting those numbers in October,” he said. “Maybe it’s the towns’ fault … maybe it’s the selectmen’s fault, the town administrator’s fault that we don’t have the numbers projected for you in October to use for us in January.”
He said the process has to start somewhere.
“At some point, we have to start,” he said. “It has to change.”
Whitman Selectman Justin Evans said a lot of progress has been made.
“We’re moving in the right direction, and I do think that, for Whitman, out budget forecast is going to get better every year that Shawn is on the board,” he said. “He’s been pushing us since he was a citizen, attending meetings of he board.”