Feb. 24, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer
Nearly 220 callers were on the line last night to listen to Supt. of Schools Paul Austin's detailed $62 million Fiscal 2022 proposed budget presentation to the selectmen and advisory committee, with the school committee also participating.
Selectmen Chair Mary Power noted that the proposed Hingham Public Schools budget was the 48th one that the board has reviewed this budget season.
The proposed $62.28 million in requested funding -- including $15.7 million for special education -- represents a 9.79 percent increase over the Fiscal 2021 budget and includes $2.49 million for COVID-19 recovery items.
These include academic and social/emotional supports and services for students to help them recover from the COVID-19-caused disruption to education and many positions such as literacy specialists, math tutors, adjustment counselors, a district-wide elementary writing specialist, special education administrators and teachers, speech and language therapists, a guidance counselor, and a world languages teacher.
Power asked if some of those positions could be filled by contractual workers, which might qualify for funding through the town's "rainy day" fund -- normally put toward non-recurring rather than operational expenses.
Advisory committee member Andy McElaney noted that CARES Act reimbursement for COVID-19-related expenses doesn't cover the cost of hiring teachers but does for engaging short-term workers.
"We could [explore that option and] cost it out," Austin said, further noting, "We want to provide the best teachers for our students, and that comes at a price."
Key points in the presentation included the sharp increase in the number of special education students, a decline in student performance reflected in lower grades in many areas, and increased social-emotional issues -- all due to COVID-19 impacts on Hingham Public School students and the slow and continuing return to in-person learning at all levels, school administrators say.
Advisory committee member Evan Sheehan asked how long Austin thinks the impact of COVID-19 impacts will be felt -- "until we get students back to where you expect them to be based on the length of time they've been out of school?"
Austin estimates that will take "at least two to three years."
Greg Corbett remarked that he thought that Austin presented "a very compelling case for why we need to fully fund the schools, but many people think the recovery budget doesn't go far enough.
"There seems to be a consensus for an override," he continued. "How much additional funding would need to be added to the proposed recovery budget to include some of the positions that have been left out?"
While he didn't have an exact figure, Austin said those costs would be substantial.
Power, on the other hand, said nothing has yet been decided about an override. "I don't think we are at that point yet. We're looking at all our options," she said. "An override is certainly on the table, but that process will unfold over the next several weeks."
She also reported that the projected overall Fiscal 2022 budget deficit -- including town departments and the schools -- has gone from $7 million to $4.5 million.
Even then, "If we were to go for a $4.5 million override and the education budget were to continue to grow at a rate of 4.5 percent each year, we would need an override every two years just to keep the services we have," Power said.
She told the Hingham Anchor after the meeting that she is struggling with the idea that "we would need to ask the taxpayers for an override every two years, particularly given the capital projects on the horizon and the many new services we might want to consider offering in the future."
Lauren Burm, the mother of two elementary school children, expressed support for the proposed budget. "I think our community should invest in the kids," she said. "We moved here because of the schools and the great community and want to continue to see that and to think about the next generation of kids who can say they grew up here and got a great education."
Priya Howell, the parent of four HPS students, said the proposed recovery budget is essential to provide services consistent with students' needs.
“If we want to make sure that people of diverse economic backgrounds can participate in our community we also need to think about the parents who move away because they can't afford to pay for tutors and other private support services," she said.
Power noted the number of "Fund HPS" participants on the call and acknowledged that while not hearing from them all last night, "we know from your screen notations where you stand and we appreciate that."
Austin noted that Hingham students have already missed 11 months of “regular” school attendance. "We have been able to document that this loss of in-person instructional time has negatively and significantly impacted the academic and social-emotional functioning of our children," he said. "We anticipate that even with the intervention services included in this budget, this gap in achievement could take several years to 'make up.'"
While it is notable that overall student grade performance is lower, Austin continued, "those groups of children who have historically struggled have experienced an even greater level of performance deficit. Thus, intervention services to these children will need to be intensified."
School Committee Chair Kerry Ni reported that the committee unanimously supports and endorses the budget proposal. "This once-in-a-century pandemic has had an economic impact on all levels," she said.
"The HPS has an excellent reputation, and we need to help students recover from this pandemic. We have data to illustrate the negative effects of Covid-19 on students and will need resources now and in future years."
Ni also noted, as did Austin, that the proposed budget does not include all the needs of the district, including a fine arts director, a director of equity and inclusion, and an additional assistant principal for the high school.
The proposed FY 2022 budget includes funding for strategic planning that Austin said is needed to guide the district for the next five-plus years. "This process will be critical to ensure that the district is meeting the needs of its students in preparation for the future, accommodates the needs of the community, and provides a clear and manageable financial path forward."
The proposed budget also includes funding to ensure that the services provided by the district are "equitable and that every student finds growth, enjoyment, success, and confidence in their Hingham Public Schools education," according to Austin.
He concluded his presentation by stating that the administration understands that the proposed budget is substantial. "However, we have shown that Covid-19 has resulted in a negative impact on our students, both academically and emotionally," he said. "Despite the financial burden of this proposed budget, we believe it is our ethical duty to put forth a budget that addresses the most immediate and pressing needs of our students."
The selectmen and advisory committee will vote on the proposal at a future date, following additional budget meetings.
The Fiscal 2022 budget proposal and related documents are posted at hingham-ma.gov.
Town Meeting has the final say on the town and school budgets.