Advisory Committee considers proposed $65.7 million school budget; resident shares concerns about tax impacts if operating override passes

town of hingham ma town hall
Photo Courtesy of the Town of Hingham

March 3, 2023 by Carol Britton Meyer

The Advisory Committee  met with the School Committee last night to discuss the proposed $65.7 Fiscal 2024 budget, including $701,874 of “unmet needs” that were not included in the initial level services budget — representing a 5.1 percent increase over the Fiscal 2023 figure.

Currently, the town’s total budget shortfall is about $6.2 million, with the school portion amounting to $4 million. Those figures will be finalized in the near future.

The Select Board is expected to decide next week whether to put an operating override on the Town  Meeting warrant and subsequent Town Election ballot to cover this deficit as well as to outline the tax impacts of any such override if it passes.

“The tax impacts of an override would be significant and permanent,” Advisory Committee member Tina Sherwood said. “I’m wondering with the planned opening of the new Foster School, is the School Committee confident in its ability to predict [budget] growth rates to assure citizens there won’t be another override in the next four to five years?”

In response, Supt. of Schools Margaret Adams said that annual budget growth rates over the past several years have averaged around four percent. “There are lots of variables, but we’re working on it. It’s hard to say yes, but I am confident. We’re being as creative and thoughtful as we can be.”

On top of the significant tax increase from a potential override to cover the deficit on both the municipal and school side would be the additional tax impacts from the Town Meeting-approved new Foster School, public safety facility, and South Shore Country Club pool.

‘We don’t want to surprise our citizens’

It’s important to be “as transparent as we can with our citizens, and if we can’t meet [the desired] growth rate in specific areas, we want to be frank,” Sherwood said. “We don’t want to surprise anyone with another significant tax increase within a short period of time.”

Some pieces of the budget the School Department/Committee can control, “some parts are malleable, and others we have no idea about,” School Committee Chair Michelle Ayer said. This includes potential unexpected significant increases in the special education out-of-district placement tuitions part of the budget.

A number of questions were posed by Advisory Committee members related to adding funding for some of the unmet needs into the level services budget, including  a full-time school nurse coordinator position at a salary of $115,174; $200,000 for staff professional development; $300,000 to fund technology needs that were previously funded through capital outlay;  and $86,700 to partially offset kindergarten tuitions as part of a five-year plan to eliminate them entirely.

Former Supt. of Schools Dorothy Galo, who was instrumental in implementing the Hingham Public Schools all-day kindergarten program, said the initial intent was for the town to fund it.

Galo said she’s glad “the powers that be in the decision-making process for the municipal and school budgets are newly receptive [to a potential operating override],” which she recalled was sometimes considered to be “a nasty word” in the past.

‘Level services doesn’t mean adequate services’

“Overrides are good things, and they need to happen more frequently to be more effective. We haven’t had one for at least 12 years,” she said. “A level services budget doesn’t mean adequate services.”

Advisory Committee member Sarah Melia cautioned against “putting forth such a large override that it doesn’t pass” with regard to the planned phasing out of kindergarten tuitions. That’s why she supports the gradual decrease. “This isn’t the year for a $900,000 ask [to cover the cost to the school budget if this plan was put in place fully in Fiscal 2024],” she said.

Resident Mark Rockoff and his wife, Beth, hold a different view from those who support an override. Speaking on behalf of himself and his wife — who was unable to attend the meeting — Rockoff first expressed appreciation for the “enormous amount of work done by members of the School Committee”  in preparing their recommendations for the upcoming fiscal year. “We know they want the best for all of our town’s schoolchildren and school personnel,” he said.

However, the Rockoffs have a number of concerns, which he addressed in his comments. These center around the cost of the current budget proposal and the significant impact passage of an override would have on residents in light of the fact that “many families can no longer afford to reside here.” This is despite a number of property tax relief exemptions and programs that are available to qualifying households.

He also noted that many seniors who are retired and have lived in Hingham for decades, and some for their entire lives, are already struggling to remain in town “because of the great increase in the assessed value of their older homes and the large tax burden this thereby imposes.”

‘Discuss adverse consequences, not just the benefits’

Rockoff encouraged the Advisory and School Committees to discuss openly the “adverse consequences, not just the benefits,” of the current budget proposal, “especially since the effects of the tax increase already approved for a new school, safety facility, and pool have not yet been felt.”

He also expressed concern that despite there being more senior citzens in Hingham than there are children in the public school system, “there seems to be little concern about spending more of the town’s money on the schools, which already accounts for approximately two-thirds of the town’s budget (when all school-related costs are included).”

Rockoff concluded his remarks by noting that the town’s Financial Policy Statement, approved a little more than a year ago, lists seven principles to manage the town’s expenditures and financial resources, including ensuring that people “of limited economic means remain a part of our community” and maintaining “stable tax rates.”

“In my opinion,” Rockoff said, “these two important principles are not being adequately addressed, which is unfortunate since more of Hingham’s longstanding residents, who for many years have paid taxes that have funded this town — which they care about deeply — should not be forced to leave as they age.”

In closing, Rockoff urged the Advisory Committee to consider when they vote on whether or not to support the proposed level services budget — implementation of which is contingent on the passage of an override — how further tax increases will affect all their fellow citizens.

‘Unmet needs’ raises concerns

Advisory Committee member Davalene Cooper said regarding including some unmet needs in the level services budget, “All of a sudden it seems like, let’s put all of these things in there and go for a larger number, which I don’t think is the smartest thing to do. It makes me less certain of the [School Department’s/Committee’s] commitment going forward to stay within a budget that’s sustainable.
That’s a concern.”

Ayer explained that from the School Committee’s perspective, a level services budget “is enough to keep us where we were, and we thought that adding some of these unmet needs would right-size the budget [for the Hingham Public Schools],” she said. “That way we would be coming up to where we want to be, which would allow us to keep at whatever percent [increase] we come up with in a Memorandum of Understanding (that has been discussed and would be between the School Committee, Advisory Committee, and the Select Board to keep budget growth rates under control in order to assure citizens that there wouldn’t  be another potential override for another four or five years.)

The Advisory Committee will continue its discussion on the proposed school budget on Thursday, March 9. Check the Town of Hingham website calendar link for further information.

The Committee makes recommendations about all the warrant articles prior to Town Meeting.

A balanced budget, which the School Committee does not support because it would drastically reduce the current number of  FTE positions, is required to be presented at Town Meeting. The proposed level services budget will also go  before voters, who have the final say.

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