The School Committee on Wednesday, April 28 unanimously approved a outlined a settlement agreement with the town of Whitman to pay water and sewer bills at the high school, which have been the source of concern since it was discovered that the bills have been in error for 14 years.
School district legal counsel Matt Feeney outlined the agreement that the district pay $185,826 over three years to resolve the dispute.
Whitman DPW notified the school district in May 2019 that multiple water and sewer readings and billing errors for the high school had been detected.
Meters were read incorrectly beginning in October 2005 and were repeated until Feb. 25, 2019, resulting in an under billing of about $307,000, School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes reminded the committee.
The Whitman DPW apologized for the error and any inconvenience it caused, but maintained water and sewer services for the high school.
Only WHRHS facilities were involved in the billing errors.
The School Department worked with Feeney and the town of Whitman to “determine what the district realistically owed” on a six-year statute of limitations, Hayes said.
The result was a mutually agreed-upon $185,826.46 to be paid in equal installments of $61,942.16 over three years, beginning in fiscal 2022.
Business Manager John Tuffy said a payment plan has not been determined yet, but a $61,000 forecasted in state aid or a transfer from excess and deficiency look like the most likely funding avenues.
“There is no intention to modify the budget, at least that I’ve heard of, and send a new assessments out for the towns,” Tuffy said.
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak presented a brief COVID update, noting all students returned to class on April 5 and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley issued a May 17 date for all high school students to report back to in-person class.
“For us, if we hadn’t made that move it would have been within six or seven days, but they’ve been in school since April 5 and things have gone pretty well,” he said.
Middle schools were supposed to reopen by April 28, and in W-H have been back since April 5 as well.
Contact tracing presents a new situation, Szymaniak said. DESE and the state Department of Health and Human Services has issued new guidelines which involves close contacts exposed to COVID-19-positive people in the classroom or on the bus. Those wearing masks do not have to quarantine unless they were within three feet of the person testing positive for 15 minutes or more during a 24-hour period. The order does not apply if such contact occurred outside the classroom or bus.
“This new guidance will drastically decrease the amount of quarantines within our district,” Szymaniak said. “This will help us keep kids in school. … It will be parents’ choice whether they qauarantine their child. Our directive from DESE is to notify families.”
The district is also receiving eight pallets of persona protective equipment (PPE) — masks, hand sanitizer, gowns, stethoscopes, etc. — after the state ended up with a surplus it offered to schools, and will pay interested school districts to pick it up.
“We should be in a good spot come September,” he said.
MCAS and winter school
Because juniors who missed the MCAS last spring during the COVID shutdown, are eligible to take the exam to qualify for Adams Scholarships, the district is over the number of students they can test with the current number of proctors. Testing will take place May 6 and 7 and May 10 and 11.
Principal Dr. Christopher Jones said a “reverse half-day schedule” is being used to work around the issue. Buses will run at the usual times and students not taking the tests, who cannot get a ride at a later time can ride the bus.
MCAS testing ends at 10:15 a.m. and all students taking the test will proceed to classes after the exams. Distancing will also have to be provided for the 354 students — 288 sophomores and 66 juniors — taking the MCAS.
Winter school, which moved summer school classes to the winter season, saw a 76-percent success rate, Jones said, meaning 40 out of 52 moved out of winter school with passing grades.
“The important part was a decent number of them were seniors at risk,” Jones said. “They were at risk of not graduating.”
For the graduation ceremony at 6 p.m., on Friday, June 4 (rain date June 5), enough seats will be put out on the field used for four members of each graduates’ family at proper social distance. Other family members may use the standing room area at social distance.
Szymaniak said all those attending must sign in to permit contact tracing, if necessary.
“It’s not going to be a free-for-all,” he said.
The committee also began discussion of a proposed policy for therapy dogs in district schools. Szymanaiak said it was going to be worked on over the summer to present a well-thought-out plan.
A gender identity policy is also being looked at in an effort to see if current school policies are adequate.