School Committee approves pared-down $34 million budget
The School Committee voted to approve a $34 million budget for fiscal year 2024 at its meeting on Thursday, Dec. 15.
The budget is 3% smaller than the original proposed budget, which faced harsh criticism from the Finance Committee due to its perceived excesses.
“I am personally convinced that it’s the right number,” said School Committee Vice Chair Geoff Swett. “I certainly hope the town can find its way to approving it, and I will advocate for it.”
Superintendent Matthew D’Andrea declared that the newly-revised budget is “more accurate and transparent” than the previous one.
It is a 4.7% increase in spending from last year, whereas the original proposal increased spending by 7.57%.
“In a perfect world, [the original budget] is what we would use, and use it effectively,” said Swett. “It would be wonderful if we could reduce costs and reduce services,” he said, but they are real children with real needs.”
He referenced the fact that almost 75% of Wareham students are classified as “high-needs,” meaning that they are low-income, current or former English Language Learners or students with disabilities.
D’Andrea said that 4.7% was as low as the budget increase could get without negatively impacting students’ well-being.
The budget, first proposed in November, increases funding for transportation and energy costs in the wake of inflation and a bus driver shortage, as well as salaries for social workers recently hired to combat pandemic learning loss.
D’Andrea argued that every cent of the budget was necessary for the well-being of students, but the Finance Committee said that the town would simply not be able to afford it.
In response, D’Andrea, district Finance Director Kristin Flynn and the principals of the Elementary School, Middle School and High School went through every line item to see what could be reduced.
“We found many lines that we were able to chip away at,” he said.
The biggest change to the budget was the removal of positions in the District that do not directly interact with students. At the budget’s public hearing on Dec. 1, Teachers Union President Deanna Semple criticized the number of administrative positions in the District. Finance Committee Chair Bernard Pigeon echoed her criticisms, calling the District “overstaffed.” D’Andrea replied by saying that the District has as many people as it needs to confront the many challenges brought on by learning loss.
“It will impact the District,” D’Andrea said about the cutting of positions. “Certainly, any position that I cut, this person has responsibilities, they’re doing a lot of work. Either they won’t get that work done, or someone else will have to pick that up.”
When School Committee Member Brennan McKiernan asked what positions were being cut, D’Andrea declined to name them.
“Nothing is written in stone,” D’Andrea said. “We are looking at grant opportunities that will perhaps help us with this budget next year. Nothing is finalized.”
The public will decide the ultimate fate of the budget at Town Meeting next spring.
“I do hope that the public at Town Meeting, when this is presented, does realize the sacrifices that everyone in this district makes to keep the kids where they’re at and to keep them thriving,” said School Committee member Apryl Rossi. “The quality of life for every town is based solely on the school.”
Rossi added that trying to get funding for each aspect of the budget has been like “trying to get blood from a stone.”
Flynn described more budgetary woes during Thursday’s meeting. The District is running out of money to pay substitute teachers, having used half of their budget for substitute pay despite being being only a third of the way through the school year.
Flynn said that it’s “hard to say” why the District has had to spend so much money on substitutes.
“It’s an area that schools struggle with,” she said.
The District has already had to use a Department of Education grant to pay substitutes, and may have to tap into emergency Covid-19 relief funds as well.