School officials discuss dwindling budget
The Wareham Public Schools will be looking to make cuts as it’s unlikely that the district will have the same budget next fiscal year as it did for this year — and there’s a good chance they will need to make do with even less. Officials from the School Committee, Board of Selectmen, and the Finance Committee met virtually on Thursday night to discuss the district’s prospects for the next fiscal year.
To provide the same level of service next year, school officials say they would need to increase the budget by $3,122,337 to $32,553,073. The current fiscal year 2021 budget is $29,430,736. (Fiscal year 2021 runs from July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2021.)
The current budget proposal is already bare-bones, with no new staff, decreased supply lines and a decrease to the budget for out-of-district special needs education for students who cannot receive the education they need within Wareham schools.
Not only will the town’s funding be lower than one might hope due to the ongoing impacts of covid-19, so will the state’s. Selectman Alan Slavin said that the state may give the district and town less funding next year than they did this year.
School Committee member Joyce Bacchiocchi said that the proposed budget was already as low as it could be without cutting services.
“This budget doesn’t include anything extra. They’ve been asked to develop a budget that just continues the services,” said Bacchiocchi. “The school department has always adapted to whatever budget.”
While funding is projected to decrease, the level of student need has increased.
Director of Student Services Melissa Fay said that during the pandemic, there has been about a 30 percent increase in the number of students from Wareham who have become homeless and been displaced to other towns. There has also been a 30 percent increase in the number of Wareham students who have been removed from their home by the state and placed in another town.
“So we have a lot of families who were kind of on the verge of going into crisis, and now, because of covid, have gone into crisis,” Fay said.
All of those students — a total of 14 so far — will need to be transported back into Wareham to continue learning at Wareham schools, as is their right. The cost of that transport is split with the town the student now lives in, and is partially reimbursed by the state, but that reimbursement won’t come until the following year.
Fay said she is also concerned about an increase in the number of parents requesting independent outside evaluations of their students’ educational needs to make sure they are receiving the appropriate services. The tests, which help identify students struggling with dyslexia, ADHD or other conditions impacting their academic success, are expensive — running between $2,000 and $5,000 — and the services required if the student is found to have unmet needs can be even costlier.
Usually, Fay builds in a significant cushion into her budget to account for new students in the district with expensive special educational needs. She said that because Wareham has an unusually high number of foster homes, these students are more likely to come into the district.
Due to the financial pressures on the district, that cushion has been cut significantly.
Finance Committee Chair Bernie Pigeon said he was concerned that officials had not allocated sufficient funds to cover the utility and maintenance costs of the new elementary school once it opens, although Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood assured him those costs were accounted for.
“This is the budget that we need to support our students, but we always live within our means,” Shaver-Hood said.
Tom Worthen, a member of the finance committee, said that voters will need to understand that services will be lower in the schools as there simply will not be enough money to maintain the current programs.
“Everyone in the schools is being asked to do more and more with less and less,” Bacchiocchi said.
The budget will need to be approved by the School Committee at an upcoming meeting.