| Sarah Heinonen
HAMPDEN/WILBRAHAM– The Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee approved the fiscal year 2021 (FY21) budget on March 26, with a vote of 6-1 to fund the district, however, the schools will lose 15 full-time employees.
“That was the most somber vote on a budget I've ever heard,” School Committee Chair Patrick Kiernan said, reflecting the frustration and disappointment expressed by many of his colleagues.
The district entered the budget cycle with a 2.1 million dollar budget shortfall to overcome. The FY20 budget was $48,444,374. FY21 will see a 1.76 percent increase to $49,295,449. Much of that increase is the result of state-mandated costs, which rose $2,078,605 from last year.
Howard Barber, director of Finance, Operations and Human Resources, presented the FY21 budget during a public hearing. He broke the increases down to show health insurance has increased by $40,000 and retirement has gone up by $76,950. Out-of-district placements of students with special education needs will cost an additional $541,992, union salaries are up $833,215 and transportation costs have risen $182,485.
The revenue streams with which the district has to pay for the increases consist of Chapter 70 state aid, Chapter 71 state transportation reimbursement, and the individual towns’ tax assessments.
Barber explained that the increase to Chapter 70 from the Student Opportunity Act is an additional $117,260, or $30 per student.
At the same time, the transportation reimbursement for Chapter 71 dropped 4 percent, which translates to $57,677 fewer dollars. He noted that although regional school districts are promised complete funding, HWRSD is receiving 76 percent of every eligible dollar.
Tax assessments are largely determined by the percentage of students from each town that are enrolled in the district. Continuing a trend seen over the past several years, an increasing number of HWRSD students come from Wilbraham, while fewer students reside in Hampden. The percentage of students from Hampden in FY21 is expected to be 20.81 percent, while Wilbraham residents are estimated to make up 79.19 percent of the district.
Wilbraham approved a 2.5 percent increase to their assessment, making the town's portion $26,270,243. Due to the enrollment shift, Hampden will see a .54 percent decrease to their assessment, at $8,078,598.
In addition to the assessment, the Wilbraham Finance Committee has also authorized $275,000 in one-time costs. Barber said Hampden could choose to provide $72,000 from the assessment reduction to finance additional one-time costs.
Another revenue source for the district is the excess and deficiencies (E&D) account, which contains any unspent money from previous budgets. The account currently stands at $1,345,774. The district will use $600,000 of that toward the FY 21 budget.
Wilbraham resident Bob Tourville asked why the entire E&D account will not be used. Barber said it was in the interest of sustainability, so there would be a cushion in FY22 when mandatory costs are again expected to increase.
Barber explained that the revenue does not meet the expenditures. To overcome that, the reduction of 15 faculty and staff will save the district approximately $1.2 million. The cuts will include paraprofessionals, elementary interventionists, adjustment counselors, teachers, assistant principals, a psychologist, a librarian and central office personnel.
“Those are all teachers, those are all professionals,” Kiernan said. He asked the school committee to make sure that every other option had been considered before resorting to cutting faculty. Superintendent Albert Ganem reassured him that every opportunity for reductions and increased revenue have been explored.
School Committee member Bill Bontempi said that with mandated costs continuing to rise, the district will have to “whittle down” more staff and services each year.
Committee member Sherrill Caruana and Kiernan argued that the full committee had not had a chance to fully vet cuts, but a majority of the committee decided to hold the vote without further deliberation as the committee was up against a March 31 deadline imposed by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Barber explained that while proposed legislation would ease that restriction, it had yet to be signed. Ganem said he and Wilbraham Select Board Chair Sue Bunnell had both reached out to state lawmakers in an effort to extend the deadline, to no avail.
After the vote, Kennedy acknowledged the hard work that Barber had done on the budget during a financially difficult time. The sentiment was echoed by the other school committee members.
Bontempi was asked whether the committee would consider a change to the funding model going forward to lessen the impact of enrollment shift. He said the district had a choice to continue calculating the enrollment percentage yearly or to switch to a five-year average. He said it was something that would have to be looked at, but a change would require both towns to sign an amendment to the regional agreement.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ryan asked if they should hire an assistant superintendent, in case Ganem were to fall ill.
“I would never say no to additional support,” Ganem said, but noted that he was mindful of how an additional administrator would be perceived in the district when they are cutting in-classroom positions.
Aside from budget talks, the district also discussed the steps taken to combat COVID-19, including sanitizing schools, having counselors reach out to students who may be struggling on an emotional/social level, continued engagement with special needs students, expanding remote learning opportunities for students, and the search for a new principal at Mile Tree.
Anonymouswrote on 4/3/2020 at 11:04:29 AM
This is fake news, I'm looking forward to the upcoming retraction. Maybe actually research the full story before posting nonsense and concerning those employed by the district.