Assessment to towns reduced
The School Committee has taken two more steps toward closing its fiscal year 2016 budget gap.
Members voted 7-2 on Wednesday, April 8 to reduce the assessment increase the towns will be asked to pay from 4.5 to 3 percent, and voted 9-0 to transfer an additional $250,000 from reserves.
Board members Susan McSweeney of Hanson and Robert Trotta of Whitman voted against the assessment reduction. Member Alexandria Taylor was absent.
“Taking one-time money out to fund an operating budget goes against everything that you normally think about, but at the same time if we can have a vision as to how we’re going to correct what the future is … we have a revenue problem,” Small said of the reserves transfer. “[But] I think it would decimate us not to do it.”
Both Small and Trotta advocated a return to long-term planning toward closing the budget gap.
“There needs to be a real dialogue between the towns and the school committee,” Trotta said. “I feel frustrated that we don’t seem to be making any [progress].”
The budget as presented in February was $47,635,211 with a $3,363,618 deficit. Salary adjustments and reductions of $959,382 made last month as well as revenue from school choice brought the deficit down to $2,262,988 and a March 11 transfer of $500,000 from the $1.4 million in reserves — leaving $970,000 in the account —further trimmed the deficit to $1,762,988. With the second transfer, there is now $720,000 in reserves.
With a 4.5-percent increase, $788,173 would have been added to the budget, according to committee Chairman Bob Hayes. At 3 percent, 525,449 would be added to help close the deficit — now at $987,539.
How it would hit
The impact of a 3 percent assessment increase would mean about 20 positions cut, according to Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Ellen Stockdale. Only six retirements are planned, but Hayes said so many past retirements have gone unfilled, the district can’t assume the six can remain unfilled this time.
“We’re cutting bone onto bone,” he said. The $250,000 transferred from reserves can save four teachers, according to Hayes.
Both Whitman and Hanson officials have indicated 3 percent would be as high as they dare go for the FY 2016 budget.
“We don’t have the money,” said Whitman Town Administrator Frank Lynam, adding that a 4.5-percent increase could lead to either an override situation or “shutting down one of the departments.”
Hanson Selectmen Chairman Bruce Young said Hanson is in a similar situation as the town has spent “a good deal” of the free cash the town had going into its last Town Meeting and going into the May Town Meeting on projects the town has needed to do for some time such as school roof and window lintel repairs. He added that the Finance Committee has already reduced an approved 2.5-percent raise for department heads to 2 percent.
“We’re definitely not in as good a position as we were last year,” Young said. “Our position may not be as dire as [Whitman’s] but we’re just trying to maintain some kind of balance.”
“We have struggled over the past few years to accrue some money in stabilization to protect the town with its bond payments,” Lynam said. Whitman started the year with $1.8 million in capital stablization, but just to make existing debt payments the town will have to withdraw about $300,000 from the account, he cautioned.
“That was not something we anticipated,” he said. “We ended the year in a fairly positive mode and the weather took care of any spirit we had.”
Lynam and Young also indicated “dueling budgets” would have a detrimental effect on voters willingness to pass articles at Town Meetings and at the ballot box to fund technology upgrades the schools need.
“I think we have to show people we can work together,” Lynam said.
Time to talk
Whitman Middle School teacher Beth Stafford said, while she acknowledges departments need to work together, “it always seems to be the school side that gets cut” and the schools have lost 100 positions since 2000.
“No other department even comes close,” she said. “I just feel at this point in time people need to stand up and do what they’re supposed to do and fight for what you need — you’re the School Committee, you represent the children in the two towns.”
She suggested that perhaps it needs to start with conversations between the schools and the community.
“I want to have a dialogue,” Lynam said. “I don’t want it to be now. I don’t want it to be May. I want to get through this budget cycle and I want to have some serious discussions with people on what we can do on a long-term plan.”
In other business, warrant articles for fire alarm panel replacement were withdrawn from both towns’ annual Town Meeting warrants as not necessary at this time. Lynam mentioned that Whitman Fire Chief Timothy Grenno “very emphatically” said he was not requesting the project.
Frequent false alarms are traced to faulty building sensors or the communication system within the panels and do not preset a life safety issue. The articles in fact originated with the district’s technology department as a delayed project and they wanted to see if it could be done this year.
The votes were 9-0 to remove the article from both warrants.