The budget still has many moving parts, noted Town Manager Norman Khumalo during a joint meeting Thursday night with the School Committee. While he acknowledged that people want definitive answers and numbers, Khumalo said the immediate need is to continue “collaborative dialogue” and to “move forward transparently.”
Last week, the School Committee expressed surprise about its proposed $60. 1 million budget for fiscal year 2024 potentially facing a $1.7 million cut. The proposed school budget reflects an 8.3 percent increase over the last fiscal year. Meanwhile, the town announced a directive last fall that departments should adhere to a 5.1 percent hike when budgeting.
School officials said they did not see a 5.1 percent enforcement on the horizon because at subsequent meetings during the budget process, it was not mentioned. In addition, Select Board members had spoken in favor of restoring special education positions when public outcry eventually led to that outcome.
Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh and other administrators met and came up with a list of what a $1.7 million reduction might mean. It included the loss of 24 educators, some programs and a school bus, among other things.
But at Thursday’s joint meeting, Khumalo announced that he would have a firmer financial proposal to convey on Friday, leading up to the Select Board’s session with the Appropriations Committee next Tuesday.
Tim O’Leary, Hopkinton’s chief financial officer, spoke about factors impacting the town’s overall budget. On one hand, the town set aside $1.5 million to address appeals of taxes from Eversource that were expected but not filed.
He said the town must decide if it wants to use that “savings” to fill in gaps elsewhere in the budget.
O’Leary said another issue is rising healthcare costs for current employees that are “woefully insufficient” in the budget. The town budgeted for $9.8 million, but the projected cost is $10.9 million that must be paid by June 30, 2023.
The town is in negotiation with insurance providers, he said, and the numbers for FY24 will change.
Although some Select Board and School Committee members asked for specific budget “gap” figures to drive the discussion, Khumalo said it wouldn’t be fair to identify numbers when “there are still so many actions we need to take.”
Select Board member Irfan Nasrullah said the 5.1 percent increase [directive]“ is not new news.”
He added that in order to move forward, the town needs to get “fiscal discipline in hand.”
O’Leary emphasized that the budget had to be looked at with its “multi-year horizon” in mind. Capital item requests would have a “very substantial tax impact over the next few years if everything gets passed,” he said. The hike could be as high as 33 percent to 50 percent — potentially taking an average tax bill from $12,000 up to $18,000.
Or, if things are handled more conservatively, a hike closer to one-third over five years may be possible, he added.
School Committee chair Nancy Cavanaugh cautioned against assuming capital requests would all get approved by Town Meeting. The timelines on some projects could be changed, she said, noting that she does not want to make things financially difficult for taxpayers either.
Select Board member Muriel Kramer said no decisions could be made next Tuesday without first factoring in the issues projects like the Elmwood School replacement project would have.
“Massive debt will hurt bond ratings and property values too,” she said.
Noting that the $170 million estimated cost (although there would be Massachusetts School Building Authority reimbursement of about 25 percent) coupled with work on Hopkins School would be prohibitive, Kramer questioned whether it made more sense to renovate the existing Elmwood School instead.
Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh noted that it would cost more for that option and would not resolve space issues (Elmwood could only house Grades 2-3). She added that Hopkins School also did not have any more room for expansion.
Further along in the project, decisions like how “green” to make the building, types of materials used, inflation and more would affect the price tag, she said.
Nancy Cavanaugh warned against lowering the standards of schools to save money and harming students in the process. “Some kids won’t recover educationally,” she said.
Nasrullah said he recognized the schools are Hopkinton’s “crown jewel,” and level funding would be challenging, but stressed the importance of pointing out the town’s financial constraints to the public.
Select Board member Shahidul Mannan talked about the 25 percent population growth Hopkinton has experienced over the last several years, as well as the more than 20 percent enrollment growth in schools.
He said money from that growth was not used to increase capacity, and “infrastructure related to growth now is in front of us.”
Mannan said the town must find the “sweet spot” of managing quality services without adding to the burden for economically challenged households.
He said the schools create a “great brand” for the town, and cuts would impact quality of life. Mannan added it is “high time” to expand the tax base by looking for other revenue opportunities such as commercialization, having an economic development office, selling buildings like the Elmwood School, pursuing other state and federal funds, etc.
He urged the town to be “creative and action-oriented” in its pursuit of additional revenue streams.
Khumalo said by next Tuesday there may be more scenarios to consider.
On January 12, the select board joined the school committee in the middle school auditorium ( https://www.youtube.com/live/9CQPZyoVu9U?feature=share ). Members of the select board indicated they thought the proposed cuts were too great after hearing over an hour of community feedback. It was shocking, as a community member, to see them come back and say they expect the school committee to cut more than they the cut opposed in January.
Instead of planning never ending tax increases, it’s time to think out-side the box. I’m not proposing anything radical, just some tried and true common sense policies, eg. Wage and hiring freezes, increased class sizes, limiting non-core class offerings. implement user fees, join a regional 911 dispatch, etc. Audit all departments contracts, especially the school busing contract; why did we pay the bus company in 2020 – 2021 when the schools were fully remote and no busses were running? Also audit all insurance policies and contracts and seek competitive bids. Get a grip on it now or face more extreme measures when the citizens of Hopkinton take the meat cleaver to the budgets and you will be forced to cut services and institute things as double sessions in the schools.