The School Committee on Thursday voted 3-2 to approve an amended budget for fiscal year 2024 totaling $59,937,752, a 7.9 percent increase over the previous year.
Members Holly Morand and Jennifer Devlin cast the opposing votes.
The original budget approved and then reaffirmed by the School Committee was $60.1 million.
However, most recently, the Select Board directed the district to trim $350,000 from that figure.
A reduction of $235,000 to the proposal resulted instead when the town decided to take $57,500 from free cash. [Editor’s note: This story originally indicated the $57,500 would come from the town’s Other Post Employee Benefits (OPEB) Fund and Stabilization Fund, but a late change was made.]
The district did not receive the grant.
That $115,000 would fund what Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh described as “student-facing” positions.
Affected by the $235,000 reduction are the cuts of two technology integration specialists to 0.6 FTE (full-time equivalent, $120,000 savings); reductions of fine arts/business/technology/engineering requests at the high school ($45,000 savings); and one-time purchases like furniture, shelving, maps, tuba and textbooks ($70,000 savings).
Although the committee previously voted unanimously to hold firm with the $60.1 million total, chair Nancy Cavanaugh suggested that stance would put the board in “an awkward position” at Town Meeting.
She said it would be better to collaborate with the town, keeping in mind a fall Special Town Meeting when the district would be “asking for a whole lot of money” to fund a proposed Elmwood School replacement project.
Nancy Cavanaugh suggested the committee “move forward and not sort of bite off our nose to spite our face.”
The chair added she felt there was more cooperation other years with the town when developing the budget. Members reiterated their disappointment that during the process starting in the fall, other town leaders had not expressed concern or disagreement with the proposed school budget.
School Committee member Lya Batlle-Rafferty called it “frankly irresponsible” that administrators were told to come up with reductions over a weekend following five months of meetings.
She said she’s heard “slightly derogatory” comments in the community about School Committee members not cooperating with the directive.
“I feel strongly the town needs to collaborate with us,” Batlle-Rafferty said, noting that they could have been given the budget message in November rather than just recently.
Nonetheless, she agreed to approve the amended budget because of the “ask” anticipated in the fall.
Devlin and Batlle-Rafferty are not running for re-election this spring.
Devlin said even though she won’t be on the committee in the fall, she can appreciate both sides and a desire to “keep things smooth.” However, she said with all the town growth, it should come as no surprise that school enrollment continues to grow — even higher than has been projected.
“I’m inclined to stick with my statement. We voted a very fiscally responsible budget in January,” she said.
The superintendent said if the reduction was higher, she would “draw the line in the sand. … It’s not everything we wanted, but we can do good things for kids being $235,000 apart,” she said.
With the rising enrollment, the superintendent said the town can anticipate the district will ask for assistant principals and other full-time educators in future budgets.
Bullying policy reviewed
The superintendent outlined the definition of bullying in the school policy that aligns with state laws. It talks about aggressors/perpetrators targeting others based upon their perception of an “unequal physical and/or psychological power relationship.”
They intend to harm their targets and do so repeatedly, she noted.
The policy states that bullying is not a quarrel or a conflict or problem between two people who are perceived as having equal power (i.e. two classmates who usually get along and in the midst of a disagreement). Also in this category is teasing between friends without “intent to harm” but still upsetting and offensive.
Batlle-Rafferty pointed out there are other cases where a person is targeted by numerous individuals or one at a time.
“To a child, that feels like bullying whether it meets the legal definition or not. We’re trying to allow a secondary avenue for the child to be heard,” she said.
The superintendent said a lot of what they see is “student conflict,” and parents should contact building administrators because, “There may be something schools can do to better the experience of children.”
The district can assist when incidents happen on or adjacent to school grounds, bus stops and buses or through the use of technology or an electronic device owned, leased or used by Hopkinton Public Schools, she said.
There are several places on the district homepage where parents can access information and report incidents, most prominently the “Stamping Out Bullying and Harassment” button.
Carol Cavanaugh outlined training educators have been receiving to deal with these issues and also talked about the investigation process done in the district to address reports.
She added that it is important when reporting a complaint to provide names so administrators can follow up and act upon it.
Morand suggested that a bullying prevention-type committee be formed in conjunction with other town resources to provide the most help possible to parents and the kids dealing with bullying and/or harassment.
Morand said it is national problem and a lot of people talk to her and ask her to speak on their behalf. They feel not enough is being done and there are gaps in the policy, she said.
Having a larger group would take the burden off teachers and administrators, she said.
However, vice chair Amanda Fargiano cautioned against “going beyond the scope of what we already own.” She said there is an approach in place for what the district handles.
The superintendent also cautioned against breaking confidentiality rules.
Noting there is “unprecedented mental health and trauma everywhere,” Morand said she wants to find ways so that students can feel heard and safe at school.
Other members said they should research and discuss the topic more.
“This is a hard thing to navigate,” said Batlle-Rafferty. “Where can we support and help without stepping on principals’ toes?”
By collaborate what the school committee means is give us every single dollar that we want. Remember that they only care about the schools, not the Town as a whole. They are pushing the town further towards numerous financial problems. The amount of borrowing they are planning for alone will drop the Town’s AAA bond rating within the next two years. By dropping the OPEB contribution the Town is increasing it’s liability timeline which will cost the Town hundreds of thousands of dollars in the long run.
I’m not sure folks appreciate how much the schools are raising taxes. For example, a $200 million borrowing for the schools will increase an average household’s taxes by $97,500 over 25 years , and that is just for one of the MANY expensive projects that are in the works. Not everyone has children and it is the height of arrogance to assume everyone in town will pick up a huge tax burden just for the schools.
The School and Town needs to be held accountable for all the spending and projects that are in the works or proposed. Most would appear to be excessive vanity projects while our downtown becomes a shell of abandoned buildings.
In my 20 years in town, my taxes have gone up by almost 100%. I feel that all I get are more plastic fields and more poorly planned housing developments to support.