July 27, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer
Due to a shortfall in the drivers education program budget, Hingham Public Schools Director of Business and Support Services John Ferris suggested Monday night during an in-person meeting that the School Committee consider eliminating the program altogether.
The idea would be to ensure the students currently enrolled in the program but who were unable to complete the requirements due to COVID would be able to finish their driving lessons and instruction time.
The School Committee approved Ferris' recommendation that money to cover the shortfall in the current budget be taken from the HPS building revolving fund. Following a lengthy discussion, the issue was tabled until another meeting pending further information about a new plan developed by a staff member to help the program work more efficiently, which committee members will review during an upcoming meeting.
"The program used to be self-sufficient," Ferris said, noting that he doesn't feel it should fall under the school department.
Costs have gone up, as have Registry of Motor Vehicle requirements. "It's a different type of business than it was years ago," he said. "We're a school system, not a business."
School Committee member Jen Benham said that she believes the community "really benefits from this program" and suggested the decision be put on hold for a while pending further information and discussion.
Member Nes Correnti agreed, noting that working parents wouldn't be able to drive their teens to other communities to take private drivers education classes (there are none in Hingham).
A couple of members suggested raising the fee, which would likely still be lower than taking lessons through private programs. Others offered additional ideas, such as possible access by HPS students to drivers education classes offered at Notre Dame Academy in Hingham.
Asst. Supt. Jamie LaBillois noted that students enrolled in the program were able to take the instructional part virtually during COVID.
Popular bus driver Doris McCann, an instructor in the HPS driver's education program for the past seven years, entreated the committee to allow the program to continue.
"It seemed to run itself until recently," she observed, noting that she feels it's not surprising that the program is running a deficit due to COVID challenges. "I've received phone calls from parents saying they don't want the program to be discontinued. There were very few classes all year long, and that's why there is a [deficit]."
According to McCann, the instructors go out of their way to accommodate students' schedules so that they can fulfill their training requirements. "We love these kids, and the instructors make it work [by being flexible]," she said. "In my heart I feel that the program should not end. It's a positive thing and a nightmare taking classes everywhere else."
The discussion will be continued at a future meeting. "What I'm hearing tonight is that we need more information," Chair Kerry Ni said. "Driver's education is a valuable service, and if we can keep it going, I think we should try."
In other business at the meeting
* Ferris said that a projected $1.5 million school budget deficit coupled with an expected $2.8 million in CARES Act reimbursement funding to cover COVID-related expenses will likely result in a $1.2 million Fiscal 2021 budget surplus.
* A number of parents have written to the School Committee asking what the mask policy will be when students return to school in the fall, speaking both in favor of and against any such requirement to wear one.
While the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued a statement recently, School Committee Chair Kerry Ni said no decision has yet been made so the committee is waiting for an update from DESE at a later date and will keep the school community informed.