WILBRAHAM – The Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District has found some relief with its fiscal year 2016 (FY16) budget shortfall, which has now been reduced to approximately $1 million.
Previously, the district planned to cut 15 full-time equivalent (FTE) teaching positions, but that number has been reduced to 12 FTE positions, Superintendent of Schools M. Martin O’Shea said at the School Committee’s April 28 meeting.
He added that four factors have reduced the shortfall, including a $219,000 reduction in assessment for tuitions and transportation from the Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative and a $145,000 amendment to the district’s School Climate and Transformation Grant that would cover two school psychologists previously “carried” in the regular level service budget.
“So those are two major shifts for us that transpired recently,” he noted. “Additionally, we had been discussions with the Wilbraham Board of Selectmen to defer the $50,000 in special assessment and the Selectmen have formally reported back that they’re agreeable to that. That’s great news for us as well.”
O’Shea said the district has also seen a reduction of more than $50,000 in projected interest expenses for the final Minnechaug Regional High School (MRHS) borrowing.
The district hopes to create two new in-district special education programs that would require an initial investment cost, but would be a “cost avoidance” overall, he added. The programs include a behavioral program at the elementary level and a “life skills” program at MRHS.
“Those life skills would be for students with intensive special education needs and I think the name probably best describes the program,” O’Shea explained. “It’s an opportunity for students to gain life skills in an educational.”
Both programs would require “significant effort” to plan, he noted.
“If you bring these programs in, and we’ve been successful in recent years, we want to do it right,” he added. “We want to do it right to make sure that we continue to serve kids appropriately and to make sure we’re in compliance and meeting kids’ needs.”
The district has one of the “lowest outpatient ratios” in Western Massachusetts, O’Shea said.
“In 2009, nearly 19 percent of our students were identified as needing special education services,” he added. “We dropped about 15 percent in the recent year ... The trend has been downward in recent years and that’s very encouraging.”
O’Shea said the House Committee on Ways and Means proposed a recent budget update that would increase the district’s Chapter 70 funds by $15,710 and increase state aid for regional transportation by $186,861.
He added that although these changes are proposed at the state level, the district hasn’t factored these funding increases into its budget.
“It’s nothing that we should or can count on at this point because it’s a actively evolving changing picture,” O’Shea said. “It’s an increase on what [Gov. Charlie Baker] had proposed. If it does come to fruition, then that’s something that we will get back to you in terms of the opportunities that it presents.”
O’Shea said the current plans responding to the FY16 budget shortfall and to declining enrollment include restructuring high school and middle school scheduling in order to minimize impacts related to class sizes.
“I’m pleased to report that, across the district, frankly, despite the reductions, you’re looking at we will have class sizes that remain within the ranges that have been historically set by the School Committee. So, I don’t anticipate that we will see class sizes exceed 25 [students].”
Currently the district does not have full-time librarians in all of its schools, he noted.
“Library services, additionally, would remain intact as they are, meaning that we would have our elementary library staff by half time and paraprofessional ... I would argue that we would like to increase our investment in the area,” he said.
School Committee Chair Marc Ducey said the FY16 budget has been particularly challenging.
“With rising costs and state aid not keeping pace, our taxpayers have stepped forward to minimize the impact on our schools,” Ducey added. “The final state budget won’t be approved for months, so uncertainty still looms, but our FY16 budget is designed to minimize the effects of the budget shortfall. We will continue to look for efficiencies within the district and press our state legislative delegation and leadership to ensure the best outcome for our children.”