Whitman residents John Galvin and Shawn Kain were given the opportunity to provide the School Committee with a brief presentation on Wednesday, March 16 about the non-mandated busing funding formula they had discussed with Whitman’s Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee the previous evening. Szymaniak said he had also received guidance on the matter from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and Mass. Association of Regional Schools (MARS) to present at the meeting.
The session devolved, however, into accusations of whether the committee or town representatives were presenting a complete and accurate portrayal of the issue.
“The bottom line here is — and I appreciate Mr. Kain and Mr. Galvin doing some work, they did a lot of work,” Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak said. “It’s awesome to see somebody looking at things through a different lens.”
But Szymaniak said state education officials told him that, the way in which the scenarios were presented were not necessarily good for the district.
If the committee chose not to pay for non-mandated busing costs, it goes to the Board of Selectmen for their vote as to whether or not it is placed on a Town Meeting warrant, according to the regional agreement. That is how the committee voted later in the meeting. The committee voted against paying non-mandated busing costs — $121,475 for Hanson and $487,839 for Whitman — sending the cost to the individual towns as has been past practice.
“We also have to have a follow-up conversation on how the article is presented to the community,” Szymaniak said.
He said that examination from outside affords them the chance to vet and think through the issue.
“On the short list of things the Finance Committee in Whitman has been concerned about, non-mandated busing has been one of them,” Kain said, noting that their study gave them a solid idea of how non-mandated busing worked, and the numbers behind the methodology. Previous consideration of transportation costs did not consider that cost savings did not equal is being paid for with non-mandated busing.
When Business Manager John Stanbrook recently discussed numbers, Kain said it provided further insight into the numbers and calculation method used to determining the cost of non-mandated busing.
What “didn’t sit well,” with him, Kain said, was that if the committee decided to discontinue non-mandated busing, the district could receive “significantly more” mandated state reimbursement. He said they approached it from an interest in simply finding inefficiencies, not to play a “gotcha” game with the district.
Szymaniak said he reached out to DESE and, during a “spirited conversation,” they discussed the idea. MARS, when he spoke with them, recommended using the terms eligible and not eligible rather than mandated and non-mandated. The discussions focused on a figure of $1.8 million for everybody.
“Then we bill the town[s] … the difference of $1.8 million to what non-mandated folks are,” he said, but it wouldn’t be cut. “For Whitman that would be $400,000, and for Hanson it’s $100,000-plus.” After that deduction, the state would be billed $1.3 million.
Szymaniak said they were told that, unless the district can justify how other students were transported on the end-of-the-year report.
He outlined the proposal to bill the state for $1.7 million, but would like to transport everyone.
“We can continue to look, but we can’t bill for one and do both,” he said, noting the DESE representative told him: “If John submits the annual report, and you have $1.3M instead of $1.7M this year, I’m going to flag you for an audit,” not giving out any money until the district could justify it.
Every student must be accounted for.
“If we make a change like this, we are going to proactively share with DESE what we’re doing, and then do it, not do it and create god-knows what kind of issue after,” said School Committee Chairman Christopher Howard.
Committee member Fred Small asked for a vote to place the recording of Szymaniak’s Zoom call with DESE and MARS on the district’s website in the interest of transparency after discussion with the DESE. The committee approved the posting.
Whitman Selectman Randy LaMattina argued that it was a public meeting and should be posted in any case. Szymaniak said it was not a posted public meeting, but he would request permission from DESE to do so.
“There seems to be a lot of confusion in the initial proposal and how it was presented to DESE,” Galvin said. “I’m disappointed that, as the author of that proposal, that Shawn and myself weren’t invited to that meeting and possibly could have had a different way of explaining it to them.”
He said their examples were not “scenarios” but were actual costs of eliminating the programs, and disagreed with Kain that their proposal can’t be used.
“I find it odd that you’re not willing to share the video [of the Zoom call],” Galvin said. “It just doesn’t sit right with me.”
Information they could obtain from the call would provide the opportunity to modify their proposal, if necessary.
They are not advocating use of a new formula on the end of year fiscal 2022 report. He had emailed DESE for guidance while compiling the report and was told they had none.
“Now all of a sudden, they do?” he said.
LaMattina stressed that the numbers at issue came from the district business manager, not Galvin and Kain.
“I think we would welcome an audit at this point, because, clearly, what we see is the town of Whitman is subsidizing mandated busing,” he said, noting the public doesn’t know how the question was presented to DESE. “I’m sorry, but this feels eerily similar to a couple years ago where, [he heard] ‘It’s legal, folks. What we did was legal. We talked to DESE.’”
Howard responded “because I’m not going to have things made up.”
He said the request that was made was — what would it look like if we eliminated non-mandated busing?
Whitman Finance Committee member Rosemary Connolly pointed out there is a video, from when the schools attempted to split busing costs 60-40, only to be told by former Town Administrator Frank Lynam that the towns had elected to pay more. She added that, while she is uncertain the schools did anything illegally, there is reason to question past practices in the town.