Jul 30, 2014

Town Leaders Consider Push for School Budget 'Giveback'

The fiscal 2013 Hamilton-Wenham Regional School District budget underwent the scrutiny of more than two dozen town officials from Hamilton and Wenham on Thursday night.

Town Leaders Consider Push for School Budget 'Giveback'

The Hamilton-Wenham Regional School Committee on Thursday night was looking for feedback on its plan to spend $900,000 on capital projects.

While it may not have left with solid feedback on its capital spending, it heard a variety of feedback on its 2013 budget from about 25 public officials from the Hamilton and Wenham Boards of Selectmen plus the Finance Committees from both towns.

The School Committee has voted to support a $28.3 million budget for fiscal 2013, which starts on July 1. Expenses are up 4.12 percent over 2012, but without the capital expenses as part of the calculation it is up about 1 percent. It includes capital spending on projects such as making compliant with the American with Disabilities Act, repairs to the high school auditorium and completing lighting upgrades that will be paid, in part, by National Grid.

The school budget was presented on Thursday as one number but will go to Town Meeting voters in both towns – May 5 in Wenham and May 12 in Hamilton – as two budgets, an operating budget and a capital budget.

“We need to ask Town Meeting for approval of a capital number,” said School Committee member Larry Swartz.

Officials also spent time on Thursday discussing the number of school choice students at , the cost of special education and whether the budgets addresses concerns raised in the Blue Ribbon study and operational audit.

But officials from both towns, at various points on Thursday, focused on how much money the school district might “giveback” to the towns. Interim Superintendent Peter Gray said the approved budget does not ask any more money from either town in fiscal 2013 than in fiscal 2012.

John McWane, chairman of the Hamilton Finance Committee, wondered what sort of cuts the School Committee may consider if town officials said they supported a smaller budget than the one approved by the School Committee.

Based on the current budget, the school district will have nearly 3 percent, or $869,000, in its so-called “excess and deficiency fund,” which is essentially the total of the fund balances from the previous year and serves as a reserve account. For city and town governments, the equivalent is “free cash.”

Any amount of “excess and deficiency” over 3 percent of the budget will go back to the town governments, the School Committee said.

McWane asked School Committee Chairman Alexa McCloughan whether the School Committee might cut three teachers, for example, if town officials said they did not support $200,000 in budget funding for new computers.

“That feels retaliatory,” McCloughan. “That would not be our attitude.”

Any amount over the 3 percent in the "excess and defeciency" account, or E&D, could become the "giveback." 

Molly Martins, chairman of the Wenham Board of Selectmen, said the Selectmen and Finance Committee would come up with an official stance on the budget when they meet next week.

“There are a lot of raw nerves around this,” she said.

Jennifer Scuteri, chairman of the Hamilton Board of Selectmen, said the board would not meet next week because it is school vacation week. But when it meets the following week it will come up with a position on the school budget and deliver it to the School Committee and school administration.

Earlier, Martins said it is not up to town leaders to determine the school budget but instead up to voters. Last year, Wenham officials pushed for a $500,000 so-called “giveback” and that number was based on an increase in state funding versus the originally budgeted number and a discovery that unemployment costs were counted twice in the budget. But this year, she said giveback numbers are “arbitrary or capricious numbers that do not have a basis.”

Martins said that Wenham officials would provide a “consensus opinion” to the School Committee next week.

There were some tense moments in the meeting that lasted more than two hours. At one point several people were talking at the same time during a discussion about whether open school staff position should be filled when somebody leaves the school district.

“You people need to grow up,” yelled Richard Boroff, a former School Committee member who was in the audience. Boroff was standing at the rear of the multipurpose room at the , where the meeting was being held. He went on to say that McCloughan and Gray were the only adults in the room.

A few minutes earlier, when Scuteri said that staff reductions could have been made by not filling open positions and was upset that computer software to assess class sizes and staffing had not yet been purchased, McCloughan said “As a School Committee member I feel like a scolded child.”

The discussion - from the arguably unwieldy group, at times - at several times got deep into the details of the school budget. Hamilton Finance Committee member Laurie Wilson, a former chairman of the School Committee, said at one point she felt “totally confused” and thought the feedback that was being provided was an attempt to micromanage the school budget.

She suggested that officials “cut to the chase.”

“Once you do a giveback to the towns most people will go away and let you run things,” she said.

School Committee member Dacia Rubel said it should be up to voters to decide whether the School Committee came up with a fair budget.

“We drilled this budget down – inside and out,” Rubel said.

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