Opinion: Hingham School Committee fully endorses proposed school department budget

March 3, 2021, Submitted by Kerry Ni, Chair of the Hingham School Committee

The Hingham School Committee (Committee) unanimously supports and endorses the Fiscal Year 2022 (FY’22) recovery budget proposed by Superintendent Dr. Paul Austin. This decision reflects the legal and moral obligation of the Committee, a local government body elected by town voters and required by the State of Massachusetts to propose a fiscally sound School Department (Department) budget and ensure that the Town of Hingham meets its legal obligation to support the academic, social, and emotional needs of our students. For the past several months, the Committee has engaged in a thorough examination of each aspect of the budget. We have collaborated with school administrators to determine the needs of the district and our students. We have searched for ways to maximize each and every dollar allocated by the voters of Hingham. We have identified operating efficiencies and pursued state and federal grants as well as other sources of revenue to support our programs. We are committed to ensuring that the Department uses every dollar and resource effectively.

The pandemic makes developing a comprehensive school budget more critical than ever before. The loss of in-person learning over the past year has taken a significant toll on all of our students. Assistant Superintendent Dr. James LaBillios conducted a detailed analysis of the educational and social/emotional impacts of the pandemic on the more than 4,200 students in grades K-12. The data, presented at the February 22 School Committee meeting, showed that students at every grade level are lagging academically compared to previous years, that our students are struggling on a social/emotional level, and that pre-existing achievement gaps have widened.

The Hingham Public Schools have a solid reputation and a proven history of results for students. Our teachers, administrators, and school staff are highly qualified, caring, and  experts in their fields. Therefore, when they tell us what they need to ensure our students recover from this pandemic, we must heed their expertise. We must trust their professional judgement. This is not simply blind trust; we also have the analysis presented by Dr. LaBillios, which clearly illustrates the negative effects of the loss of in-person learning on our students and why they will need extra support and resources next year, and likely over the next few years. In addition to the data, common sense would suggest what we all know, that all of us—adults and children alike—have been negatively impacted by the pandemic and the interruption to our daily routines. So, although it’s jarring to see quantifiable data highlighting  academic regression and negative social and emotional impacts wrought by the global pandemic, it is not surprising.

The Hingham Forecast Group (the “Forecast Group”) assisted us in the budgeting process. The Forecast Group, established last Spring, consists of the Chair of the Board of Selectmen, the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Advisory Committee, the Chair and a member of the School Committee, the Town Manager, the Assistant Town Manager, the Superintendent, the School Business Manager, and the Town Accountant. The Forecast Group agreed that the School Department would base the FY ’22 budget on two assumptions. First, we were to assume that enrollment will remain at the pre-pandemic level of March 2020. Second, that the proposed budget should provide the essential services required to enable our students to recover from the severe educational disruption caused by COVID-19. This is precisely what the proposed recovery budget addresses.

We must also be clear about what this budget does not do. It does not meet all of the needs of the district. Notably missing are funds for a Director of Fine Arts, a Director of Equity and Inclusion, an additional Vice Principal at Hingham High School, and other key positions, expanded AP course offerings, and updated textbooks. This is why the proposed budget includes one-time funds to develop a five-year Strategic Plan. This will allow our Superintendent the opportunity to comprehensively evaluate the needs of the district beyond the recovery period.

Like thousands of towns and districts across the country, we will look for federal, state and local funding to support the proposed recovery budget. We believe that we must rise to the occasion and meet the needs of our students not just because we have a moral obligation to do so, but because it is the right thing to do for the future of this great town.

For more information about the impact of COVID-19 on HPS students and the School Department budget proposals see: https://hinghamschools.org/about/budget-documents/

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