The School Committee on Wednesday, May 1 fell in line with the Whitman and Hanson boards of selectmen and finance committees in voting to certify an 8.5-percent increase in the school assessment for the towns in fiscal 2020.
Both towns held their annual and special town meetings, Monday, May 6.
The 9-1 vote, with member Alexandria Taylor voting against, set the assessment increase in Whitman at $1,127,966 for a total assessment of $14,398,151. Hanson’s assessment increase at 8.5 percent would be $757,634 for a total assessment of $9,670,975. The assessment to both towns is $24,069,146 for a total certified budget of $52,373,023.
Taylor had vowed at the last School Committee meeting, on April 24, that she would not vote an assessment increase that is lower than 12.5 percent.
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak reminded committee members there will be “people and positions impacted on anything under 12.5.”
Committee member Fred Small said that, in coming up to 8.5 percent, Whitman Selectmen and Finance Committee members were able to find the revenue to reach that level.
“The 2 percent extra is very much appreciated in my mind,” Small said. “While it doesn’t give us level services, what I think it does is it allows us to make the best we can out of a very bad situation. … I don’t know that we could expect anything better.”
He also stressed the need to get right back to work “almost immediately” after Town Elections to begin work on the fall override. That should be a three-pronged approach, Small said — the schools “need to lead our own charge,” improve on ways to save money, and make the public aware of the need for a good override.
“We focused a lot on Whitman in this budget process,” said Committee member Michael Jones of Hanson. “I think we learned last night [at Hanson’s Selectmen meeting] that we skipped over Hanson.”
Szymaniak reiterated that, at 8.5, there has been $1,740,000 cut from the level-service budget presented by the district this past winter. Of that, $897,000 is people and about $290,000 in “things” including legal costs as well as more than $561,000 transferred from excess and deficiency.
“We’re in the process of restructuring what we do here as well,” Szymaniak said. “There will be an impact to service, there will be an impact to technology, there will be an impact to facilities, there will be an impact to central office.”
The district is eliminating middle school foreign language classes and high school guidance services will also feel cuts, according to Szymaniak. All schools will feel the effect of cuts.
“We are looking at making sure that our students are safe and they are being taken care of through our counseling services moving forward,” he said. “In a global economy, our students need to have foreign language. We do not do that well and part of these cuts will have an impact.”
Whitman School Committee candidate Dawn Byers tearfully spoke of her seventh-grade daughter losing her Spanish class next year.
“I stood up a few years ago and advocated for all students to have [foreign language], and next year, they won’t,” she said. “I’m not going to talk about money or decisions I just want people to know what the kids are doing — taking a step back.”
Assistant Superintendent George Ferro stressed that the School District was asked to begin the budget process two months earlier and complied with that request.
“We presented the exact same budget that you see in front of you,” Ferro said, “We didn’t change, we didn’t deviate, we presented the exact same thing. … We presented what we felt was reasonable, was best and was responsible.”
Szymaniak said he is ready to start work immediately after town meetings to put a plan together to satisfy the needs of the school district as well as the towns in a full team approach.
“I’m calling them out and saying, ‘We’ve talked about this for years and, through this whole budget process, we’ve talked about a fall override,’” he said. “It needs to happen and the school needs to be a part of it.”
Data outlining the effect of budget cuts over the past 10 years, which some School Committee members have requested, can help develop a presentation for the community on the need for an override, Szymaniak said.
Small said he is sure the towns’ police and fire departments will be doing the same thing.
“We would all stand together,” Small said. “Our medical calls are up, we’ve got fires that have been devastating over the past few months — so there’s need all around. … We all work together with it, but we need to drive our own bus.”
Whitman Fire Union, whose members had advocated a 6.5-percent assessment to avoid firefighter layoffs in a May 2 ad in the Express, released a statement Thursday in the wake of the School Committee’s vote.
“Whitman Firefighters Local 1769 would like to recognize the WhitmanHanson School Committee on their vote for an 8.5-percent assessment for FY20 at last night’s school committee meeting,” the statement read. “We understand that a lot of work was put into this process and many difficult decisions were made. We are very passionate about keeping our community safe and a 12.5-percent assessment would have decimated our department’s staff by 50 percent. … We look forward to working with the Town of Whitman, its residents and the Whitman-Hanson Regional School District over the coming months on a plan to make our community sustainable for ALL departments for many years to come.”
School Committee member Robert O’Brien Jr., said his 15-year-old son is among a growing number of high school students who want a say in the budget process and how it affects them.
“Nobody likes it,” O’Brien said. “Unfortunately, there is not a lot of money to go around. … Starting Tuesday, we have to start pushing on it. … There is an incredible amount of teamwork that goes on behind the scenes that most people don’t see, but now we need to take that and — I guess — politic it, for lack of a better word.”
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes said a Hanson Selectman told him at that meeting on Tuesday, April 30 that a budget “post-mortem” was needed. He suggested a monthly budget committee meeting be held between the School Committee, department heads, finance committees — in addition to the regular monthly School Committee meetings.
In other business, the School Committee also voted to advise the boards of selectmen and finance committees of the formation of a Budget Committee, which is designed to include representatives of the boards as well as department heads in both towns. The aim is to get to work after the May 6 town meetings on the override project.
The School District also reported receiving a letter from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) declining a request to waive the 180-day school requirement at Conley School where a norovirus affecting large numbers of students and staff forced the closing of that school on March 15.
The last day of school for Conley will be a half-day on June 14, at a cost to the district of $1,820 for bus transportation.
Small requested that the district post the DESE letter on the school website for parents to read.
“There’s a phone number on there, if parents wanted to call,” he said.
The School Committee also appointed Business Services Director Christine Suckow and committee members Taylor, Small, Dan Cullity and Christopher Scriven to an Insurance Committee to review all district insurance policies with an eye to reduce costs in the future.