WILBRAHAM – Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District (HWRSD) Superintendent M. Martin O’Shea said the district’s programs and staffing levels would be “dramatically affected” by the $1.3 million budget shortfall it faces in fiscal year 2016 (FY16).
O’Shea stated at the March 24 Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee meeting the district is examining possibilities and “it will be a challenge for our administrators.”
He added, “The first direction is always, ‘Can we reorganize? Can we retain costs? Is there a different way of doing business?’ So, we’re looking at all those things before we look to impact services and staff, but I think it is certainly safe to say that with a gap of that magnitude; programming and staffing will be dramatically affected.”
O’Shea said the district is hoping to bring out-of-district programs into the district and that revenue figures yield more funds than what is anticipated.
“We will pursue other solutions through transportation, through scheduling, through new special education arrangements, but at the end of the day we think that this will be a very troublesome budget,” he added.
Reduction of force notifications to staff are anticipated to be released by mid-April, he noted.
“We have to meet our contractual obligation there,” O’Shea added. “So, a lot of our planning has to be in place by that time.”
School Committee member Peter Salerno said reduction of force notifications could be rescinded if there are changes to the budget.
“A lot of folks that have asked me, ‘Are we getting rid of teachers?’” he explained. “And I said, ‘No, it means that we’re putting them on notice that it’s possible.’”
O’Shea said to meet the contractual obligations the district typically issues more reduction of forces than positions that could be cut.
“It’s definitely hard to sustain and keep morale up in the face of these cuts,” he added. “I think we’ve got teachers and administrators who hunker down and put up a good face for kids, but you’re talking about their colleagues who will get reduction in force notices.”
Salerno added, “We may lose good people in the interim because they’ve gotten a notice and moved to another district.”
O’Shea said the district will not have a “firm and solid budget” until May or June.
School Committee Chair Marc Ducey said the district has to be conservative with its budget projections because “we can’t be left with a shortfall at the end of the season and not have gone deep enough.”
Previously, the School Committee approved the approximately $44.9 million FY16 school budget at its March 10 meeting. The FY15 budget consists of a little less than $44 million.
In other business, the Middle School Task Force (MSTF) recently recommended to the School Committee that a feasibility study regarding a single regionalized middle school be completed.
“I think there’s some short-term needs and I think the [MSTF] realizes those needs,” Ducey said. “There’s also some members of the [MSTF] who are concerned about what the long term approach will be and so there was discussion, ‘Should it encompass both or just one.’”
Ultimately, it will be the School Committee’s decision as to what a short-term feasibility study would entail, he added.
Salerno said a short-term feasibility study could cost the district approximately $10,000 from its FY15 budget.
“There’s an issue where if we’re going to do this in the fall of 2016, when we’re hoping to be able to do this, we don’t have a building large enough,” Ducey said. “We have to look at options and we have to bring in experts to allow us to understand.”
The experts would make a recommendation based on their findings as to whether Thornton W. Burgess Middle School (TWB) or Wilbraham Middle School (WMS) would be suitable for a regionalized middle school, he added.
Any feasibility study would examine the conditions of both buildings as well, he noted.
“We have to find out which site would be more viable, which site would be feasible, but beyond that there’s a lot to look at,” O’Shea said. “As I’ve said at other meetings, we might be armchair architects and engineers, but none of us truly know what site is more viable.”
If a request for proposals (RFP) were submitted for a single regional middle school project, there would need to be specifications for construction, he added.
“There are transportation considerations, code analyses, safety systems that need to be considered, underground conditions, technology infrastructure, [and] capacities,” O’Shea noted.
Another aspect of a project would be whether the district would lease or purchase modular space to solve the decline in enrollment’s short-term obstacles, while a long-term solution could be in the works, he added.
WMS could utilize modular space for three to five years, Ducey said. However, if TWB were chosen as the site for a single regionalized middle school “it would be a lot longer.”
“Honestly, a full-blown feasibility study is costly,” O’Shea said. “It requires discussion by this committee [and] by town officials. It’s nothing to go into lightly.”
Salerno said the School Committee also needs to develop a “plan B” in case either town votes against changing the regional agreement during the fall Special Town Meetings.
“Our plan B has got to be something that is effective educationally first and then fiscally second,” he added.