Finance Committee "pessimistic" about school budget

Dec 3, 2022

Finance Committee Chair Bernard Pigeon gave a blistering assessment of the School District’s $34 million proposed budget for fiscal year 2024 during the budget’s public hearing on Thursday, Dec. 1. 

Pigeon called the District “overstaffed” and said that the town’s projected revenue of $75-76 million in fiscal year 2024 would not be enough to cover both the town’s own needs and what the District is asking for. 

“I would plan a Plan B,” he told Superintendent Matthew D’Andrea and Finance Director Kristin Flynn.

Pigeon said that the Elementary School spends $11,400 per student, the Middle School spends $15,500 per student and the High School spends $13,000 per student. There are six students for every staff member at the Elementary School, five for every Middle School staffer and 3.9 for every High School staffer.

“That’s quite a ratio for all of those cost centers,” he said.

The proposed budget would be a 7.57% increase from last year, although Proposition 2 ½ prevents town property taxes from increasing by more than 2.5% in a single year. It would provide increased funding for electricity, natural gas and transportation to keep up with inflation and a shortage of bus drivers. It does not include $18 million in indirect costs that the town is responsible for, such as $1,354,821 for retired teacher healthcare, $2,859,479 for school charter and $3,209,689 for Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School. The school is asking for this money, Pigeon said, at a time when many town departments, including Police, EMS and Accounting, are understaffed.

“I have to say I’m very pessimistic on our ability to even fund your level budget,” Pigeon said. “We’re in this together, and no matter how important we feel any department may be, on the municipal side there’s very serious conditions that currently exist.”

D’Andrea said that the District has as much staff as it needs to combat the “tremendous, tremendous learning loss” caused by the pandemic, and pointed out that the proposed budget would not hire any more people.

“We have 2,000 kids that show up at our buildings every day that have tremendous needs,” he said, “and we are expected to educate them. We are expected to deal with their mental health issues, and we have staff to do that. It’s hard work, and it takes people to do it.”

Finance Committee Member Joseph Smith said that he “could not defend” the District’s proposed budget.

“I want more information,” he said. “I find a lot of things very troubling… I am looking for more before I can sit here and say I support this budget and I recommend passing this budget, because the town has some real needs.”

“If we’re gonna beat inflation, the only way to do it is by cutting costs,” said Finance Committee Member Norma Scogin. “I take what Bernie says very seriously. We have so many people in this town, and so many needs that are not currently being met… We have to be real about what we have.”

“I consider it our job to make sure that the schools have the resources they need to continue to serve the students, and that’s what this budget represents,” said School Committee Secretary Joyce Bacchiocchi. “We agree that it’s a large number, but that’s why we’re here, to make sure they have what they need.”

Speaking to the School Committee, Teachers Union President Deanna Semple said that the school can cut several expenses, such as paying an assistant town administrator a $40,000 salary to act as director of human resources.

“Why are we paying for this position when most districts our size expect the superintendent and assistant superintendent to do this work?” She asked. “We are paying outside consultants $68,000 to provide professional development when we have an assistant superintendent and district administrator with a combined salary of almost $300,000.”

She questioned “the need for” a long list of positions: Contracted school psychologists not directly employed by the District, seven technology positions, four additional facilities positions in addition to custodial staff, seven administrators in the central office, eight in the Elementary School office, four at the Middle School and seven at the High School.

“These are non-student facing positions that are getting six-figure salaries at times,” she said.

“We have a responsibility to have the best possible people educating our children,” said School Committee Vice Chair Geoff Swett. “They are highly educated and deserve the salaries they are getting.”

However, Swett was concerned that he could not achieve the “balancing act” between the needs of students and parents, and what taxpayers can afford. The proposed budget would have been $37 million if not for grants and other offsets, which will not exist one year from now.

“The problem is actually much bigger than this presentation highlights,” he said. “I am sitting here very concerned about the ability of Wareham to provide great education to its children unless we can solve this revenue problem.”