Proposed $34 million school budget would fund social workers, bus drivers, vents

Nov 17, 2022

The Wareham School District’s proposed $34 million budget for fiscal year 2024 will pay the salaries of 24 employees hired last year to tackle pandemic learning loss, among other transportation and infrastructure needs. The budget, 7.57% greater than last year’s approved budget, was presented by District Finance Director Kristin Flynn at Thursday, Nov. 17’s School Committee meeting. The 24 new social workers, paraprofessionals, teachers and counselors are tasked with turning around the school district’s flagging MCAS scores and rapidly rising absentee rates

“We’re not adding any new positions,” Superintendent Dr. Matthew D’Andrea explained. “We’re taking what positions we have now, and carrying them over to next year.”

Overall, the district plans to spend $27,699,103 on salaries, over $2 million more than it spent last year. Salaries make up 73% of the proposed budget. The other 27% would cover a variety of expenses, including school supplies, utilities and maintenance. Of these expenses, tuition and transportation would be the most costly, taking up 34% and 27% of the expenses budget, respectively. 

The recent hires’ salaries will be paid with a $1,860,271 Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief grant from the federal government, part of the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act. Such grants “support the safe reopening and sustaining safe operations of schools while meeting students' academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the Massachusetts Department of Education

The district received over $3 million in grants, including a $1 million Circuit Breaker Grant, a partial state reimbursement of the District’s special education costs. Vice Chair Geoff Swett saw the grant as a double-edged sword.

“You have to spend a lot of money to get the money,” he said.

Other offsets were a $400,000 240 Grant for students with disabilities, a $36,310 grant to improve ventilation and air quality in schools (another need starkly realized by the pandemic and a $58,898 grant to pay for students’ meals. With these offsets, the budget shrinks from its original total of $37 million to $34 million.

Due to inflation, Flynn said, the District “had to make some assumptions for this budget.” 

The amount of money allotted to natural gas and electricity costs at the middle and high school increased by 10%. The budget for gas and electricity at the elementary school increased by 20%. 

The proposed budget will put $2,788,002 into transportation costs, over $362,000 more than last year. 

“We might need to adjust that up or down based on where we think we are with drivers,” Flynn said.

The extra money includes the salaries for five bus drivers that the district plans to hire, as well as contract drivers, who are not directly employed by the district, and new parts for an “aging fleet” of school buses.

“We’re seeing some routes at $400 [a day],” Flynn said, referring to daily fees for outside bus services. “Some routes are $100, some routes are $300. It’s all over the place. The more we can do ourselves, the better, and that’s the goal.”

Swett warned that the budget still represented a significant amount of money, and that the offset funds would not last long.

“What people should understand is that we, in the not-too-distant future, will need to come up with $2 million in the future, or $2 million in cuts,” he said. “This is a very challenging situation for the School Committee and for administration.”

The School Committee will hold a public hearing where residents can share their thoughts on the proposed budget on Thursday, Dec. 1 at 6:30 p.m. at Wareham Middle School. 

“We want the public to understand that [the money] is being well-spent for the children of Wareham,” Swett said. “We’re trying to find a balance between what is best for the children of Wareham and what our taxpayers can afford.”