January 27, 2023 By Carol Britton Meyer
Hingham Public Schools parents and educators were among the more than 160 Zoom participants in Thursday night’s School Committee meeting to hear an update on the proposed balanced/reduced services school budget that would require significant cuts in Full Time Equivalent positions — as well as student services, arts, athletics, and other academic programming — to close an estimated $4.8 million budget gap unless an operating budget override is passed at the April Town Meeting and at the ballot box on April 29 during the Town Election.
The School Committee also met in person at Town Hall, with members of the community and educators in the audience.
Thursday’s meeting was the fourth in a series of preliminary budget discussions that reflect some “incredibly tough choices,” in Chair Michelle Ayer’s words.
In all, the reduced services budget includes the elimination of 60.6 Full Time Equivalent positions across the school district.
During a 64-page presentation, Supt. of Schools Margaret Adams and Director of Finance & Operations Aisha Oppong outlined the proposed reductions, with participation by department heads.
The proposed Fiscal 2024 level services budget is $65 million and is contingent on the passage of an override. The reduced services budget is $60.1 million, or a 2.75 percent decrease over the Fiscal 2023 budget.
‘All staff members are valued’
The guiding principles for the reductions explain in part that “all staff members are valued and important. This was an extremely challenging task for school and district leaders.”
School Committee member Kerry Ni said coming up with the reduced services budget involved “painful decisions involving more than 60 people,” while acknowledging organizations such as the Hingham Education Foundation and the Hingham Sports Partnership for their contributions to the schools and athletics.
School Committee member Tim Miller-Dempsey said it must be “awful” for teachers and other staff members while waiting for the final outcome. “This situation is horrific — the people making these decisions are not,” because they need to be made.
Future school budget meetings planned
The audience was invited to ask questions — of which there were a few — but to reserve their comments and remarks for the Monday, Feb. 13, public budget hearing at 6 p.m. Check the town website calendar for details.
There will be additional discussion about the proposed reductions should an override not pass on Wednesday, Feb. 1, at 6 p.m. At that meeting, the school principals will explain the impacts of the potential budget cuts.
The recommended reductions are due in large part to a deficit — created through increased costs and the use in recent years of one-time federal grants and money from the town’s rainy-day fund — that would continue unless an operating budget override passes. What are considered to be unmet needs are additional requests not reflected in either the level services or reduced services budgets.
The important role teachers play in the lives of their students was acknowledged during this challenging time, with Adams noting that educators who attended the meeting either in-person or remotely would be “in front of their students tomorrow providing teaching and learning and support for their students,” despite the uncertainty surrounding these budget discussions.
60.6 districtwide positions could be eliminated
Two different budget scenarios have been presented during these sessions — the level services budget — which would require an operational override to maintain — and the balanced, or reduced services, budget requiring the elimination of the 60.6 Full Time Equivalent positions at Central Office and the four elementary schools, the Middle School, and the High School — including the new fine arts director position for which many parents advocated; the elimination of sub-varsity sports and transportation and also intramurals; and the implementation of increased activity and other fees to help offset further personnel reductions, along with a reduced breadth of academic programming and elective course offerings at the high school level.
“The fine arts director was hired to strengthen art programming and the Art Department and staff, and we’re concerned about the investment we’ve already made [should this position be eliminated],” Adams said.
Athletic budget cuts proposed
Athletic Director Jim Quatromoni is concerned about the proposed cuts in his department. “Sports are a motivator that helps young people find the best version of themselves and to be together,” he said.
Under the reduced services budget, some of the freshmen teams “would [have to] go, and we would be an outlier among other schools in the area,” Quatromoni said.
The reduced services budget also reflects cuts in the curriculum and professional development, maintenance, student services, technology, and transportation budgets.
School Committee member Nes Correnti recalled that more than 30 “critical” positions were added to the school budget for Fiscal 2023 to help make up for deficiencies caused by much-reduced in-person class time due to the pandemic and related considerations using one-time funding as outlined above.
‘We’ll work hard to get the services we need’
Speaking to educators attending the meeting, Correnti went on to say that she hoped they understood that the School Committee and citizens “value education, and we need to put our money where our mouth is. We’ve increased services in the past, and we need to figure out how to [continue] to pay for them. We’ll work hard to get the services we need, but we needed to come up with a balanced budget [involving cuts] to get through this process.”
School Committee member Matt Cosman wondered if there is a way to find a middle ground between the level services and reduced services budget totals.
“As a committee, we’re not sure how the town will vote [on the override], no matter how hard we advocate,” he said. “If they vote ‘no,’ this is what happens,” referring to the reduced services budget.
“I’ve thought the same thing until recently, because this all or nothing approach seems scary, but the level services budget is the amount of money we need to fund the schools at an appropriate level, which is what people expect. While that number is big, this [budget shortfall] has gone on for years, and we haven’t had the overrides that many comparable school districts have had,” Ayer responded.
Past gains could be lost
It was noted that if the override doesn’t pass and the reduced services budget becomes a reality for Fiscal 2024, some of the gains from past years would be lost, including programming related to students’ social-emotional well-being.
Concern was expressed by a School Committee member about a cut in the student services reduced services budget related to the elimination of the elementary and secondary special education administrator positions at a time when Executive Director of Student Services Suzanne Vinnes is planning to resign — at the end of the school year to accept another position.
The budget presentation, which includes the impacts of the potential reductions, will be posted on the Hingham Public Schools website on Friday with all the details.
An Online Budget Override Information Hub web page was recently launched for residents to learn more about the town’s anticipated operating budget override request at Annual Town Meeting. Visit https://www.hingham-ma.gov/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=1508 for full details.