March 4, 2020 by Carol Britton Meyer
A large gathering of school committee members, school administrators, and parents attended last night's standing-room only selectmen's meeting to listen to Town Administrator Tom Mayo's fiscal 2021 proposed town budget update and to advocate for additional funding for the schools -- including a possible override. The conversation lasted for nearly two hours.
The $112 million fiscal 2021 overall town budget includes a proposed $56 million for the schools -- or about a 4.4 percent increase over this year's school budget. Salaries comprise a large portion of that figure, along with mandatory salary adjustments, allowance for negotiations, and required contractual services.
"Hingham spends lower than the state average per pupil," said parent Leslie Wittmann. "It's about investing in our children, which [eventually] gets paid back as they become productive members of society." More school funding is necessary, she said, even if that requires an override. Wittmann was not alone in proposing a possible override.
'Kids are only kids for a short time'
Parent Megan Buhr also advocated for more school dollars. "Our kids are only kids for a short period of time, and there are children who are not getting the services they need now," she said.
Selectmen Chair Karen Johnson, while supportive of the schools, said any such "complex" override conversation "needs to happen with the guidance of our financial advisors and after considering the town's capital needs. We don't want to over-burden our taxpayers.
"We do everything we can to allocate as much revenue as possible to the schools," she continued. "The town's support for the schools is pretty significant."
Johnson went on to say that town officials are continually looking at additional revenue sources, especially since Hingham doesn't have a significant commercial tax base, which places most of the tax burden on property owners.
Selectman Mary Power pointed out that 65 cents of every dollar the town spends goes toward supporting education (including some benefits not included in the school budget itself). She also noted that a significant number of citizens aren't in favor of further development in town, especially in the South Hingham area., would broaden the tax base.
School Committee Chair Michelle Ayer expressed appreciation for "everything the town provides for our schools and students. My heart breaks for the selectmen and advisory committee members who have to make tough choices."
'Free and appropriate public school education'
That said, "Our job as the school committee is to work on behalf of the community but not at the expense of our students," Ayer continued. "We are required by law to provide a free and appropriate public school education to every student, so spending 65 cents of every dollar is legitimate. The bad guy here is Proposition 2-1/2. A balanced budget is not a success if students' needs are not met."
Ayer went on to say that it's difficult when parents have to spend their own money "to support what's not provided, and some can't afford to do that, so there are students who are left behind. Our job is to bring equity to them," she said. "We need to figure out ways to generate more revenue, and I know you're working hard to do that. The school department wil figure out how to make this work with the proposed 4.4 percent increase [over the current year's school budget versus the higher initial fiscal 2021 budget proposal]."
Many townwide capital projects in pipeline
There are other considerations as well. "We're conservatively looking at between $80 and $100 million or more for [necessary] capital projects," Power said.
These include potentially two new fire stations, the proposed South Shore Country Club pool project, harbor wharf improvements related to expected continuing increasing sea-level rise, and additional space for Hingham Rec, the police department, and the senior center in addition to the town's share of the Foster School project with hoped-for Massachusetts School Building Authority funding in place.
"We need to consider how many Hingham citizens would be willing to open their wallets for an override" in consideration of those projects, Power said. "It's tough to live in Hingham, with the average real estate bill at about $10,000 a year.
"We try to find a balance by listening to what everyone has to say and to provide services while maintaining the essence of Hingham," she said.
It was also noted that the selectmen have supported a number of school projects in the past -- including construction of the new East and middle schools, and most recently, the proposed Foster school renovation or new school.
The question of why the town can't spend more of its surplus funds now, as needed, also came up. The reason is that the town needs to keep a certain amount of money in its "rainy day fund" --and how that money is spent falls under specific requirements.
"We are fully supportive of our public school system and it breaks my heart not to to be able to fund a senior center outreach coordinator, new firefighter and police officer positions, and all the school department's requests [at this time]," Johnson said. "We're trying to do the best we can with the money we have."
Former advisory committee member Jonathan Asher recapped past projects that have involved tax increases, including $285 a year for the average residential property owner for the new middle school over the 20-year life of the debt exclusion.
He also recalled a 2012 budget shortfall related to expensive last-minute out-of-district special education tuitions that was resolved without an operating override through collaboration among town and school officials.
"The demographics of Hingham have changed over the past eight years,"Asher said, noting that students comprise about 19 percent of the town's population, while 25 percent is made up of citizens 62 years of age and older, many of them on fixed incomes.
"The average property tax bill would increase by $435 a year over 20 years [if the Foster School project moves forward with MSBA partial reimbursement]," Asher also noted. That's on top of an additional average $870 a year potential taxincrease if all the other capital projects are also approved, which is uncertain at this time.
All that considered, Asher recommended the same collaborative approach as was used in 2012 when money was particularly tight "to balance the [fiscal 2021] budget without further tax increases through an operating override."
School committee member Libby Lewiecki, who said she was speaking as a member of the community, said she thinks the tide is changing and that there would be community support for an override. "We need to figure out how to get people behind one. The good showing at tonight's meeting is a good sign. It's time to do an override in Hingham."
While understanding of that perspective and reiterating the selectmen's support for the Foster School project, Johnson said the town needs to think about "all the priorities down the pike in light of every Hingham household."
Foster School considerations
Former six-year school committee member and current school building committee member Ray Estes, while acknowledging there may be a need for an override sometime in the future, pointed out that there's now a cap by the MSBA on how much of the cost of school projects may be reimbursed, referring to Foster School.
"Construction costs are at an all-time high," he said. "Any non-reimbursable costs would be on Hingham taxpayers, and there are so many town projects on the horizon, and only so much money [to pay for them]. An override is a concept with a lot of ramifications across the entire community as far as economics is concerned."
In wrapping up the discussion, Power said she understands that "what's behind all this is our children -- the most important thing." She went on to note the board's past and current support for the Hingham Public Schools "in many ways."
Power further suggested that school officials look at the way services are delivered. "Is there a way to do things differently or services that HPS no longer needs to offer?" that might result in some savings, she asked. "I don't expect this to happen now with new school leadership in place, but these critical questions need to be [addressed] before an override is considered."
Power and Johnson would also like school officials to consider using the $1.5 million that's currently in the field use and food service revolving [fund] accounts that Power said "are not being utilized" to support various programs desired by school officials.
Selectman Joseph Fisher agrees that an override attempt would be "premature. We are all in this together -- students, senior citizens, and everyone else living in town."