Hingham residents on Monday approved the fiscal 2012 school budget and a feasibility study for renovating the middle school, after prolonged debate about both items during the first half of Town Meeting.
The budget received criticism from Advisory Committee member Daniel J. Dwyer, who spoke on behalf of five of the 14 committee members who voted against the school budget, saying that to keep it level-serviced, but not level-funded, from prior years would be a detriment in the future.
“This is a big problem we must inevitably face,” Dwyer said. “Next budget cycle will be short the stimulus money … add that and we’ll have a new salary figure of $1.8 million … revenue under the levy is only expected to increase by $1.5 million …
“This means that with the budget before you, level services and salaries alone will consume the entire increase in the levy plus $300,000 from elsewhere in the budget [for fiscal '13]. It also assumes no salary increases for next year. Something must be done, and … it will either be reduction of services, and those reductions are painful, or an override.”
Dwyer requested that the school budget strip $100,000 from its recommended salaries of $30,299,202 for fiscal 2012, which begins next July 1, putting the school on a more stable financial path for the future.
“There is no right and wrong in these value judgments. I just want to bring up a practical point of affordability,” he said.
Dwyer's suggestion ignited debate among the among Town Meeting attendees, many of whom felt to cut that number would be akin to a slap in the face, rather than a preemptive blow to an unwieldy budget.
“The concern of sustainability should be addressed townwide and throughout departments, not just specified for a single budget,” said School Committee Chairwoman Linda Hill. “You have to ask yourself what kind of education do you want for the children of Hingham … and we are keeping it constant from this year after having several years of cuts. I urge you to approve this budget.”
Amy W. Farrell, also from the Advisory Committee, spoke in favor of the budget number. In total, $38,434,395 will be spent for the schools this year, with $738,629 coming from federal stimulus money.
“The removal of this $100,000 does not sound an alarm; it is simply punitive. The harm done by these funds far outweighs any benefit to decreasing the budget,” she said.
Selectmen Chairman Bruce Rabuffo agreed that although Dwyer was correct in saying there would be problems for the future, he had no doubt that Hingham would come through this budget difficulty as well as it had in the past.
The budget ultimately was passed as was written, without any changes.
The budget wasn’t the only warrant on the chopping block during the four-hour meeting.
Many also questioned the need and affordability of a $600,000 appropriation for a feasibility study for the Hingham Middle School to enter the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s Model School Program.
Although School Committee members stressed that they weren’t asking for money for the entire project at this juncture, audience members felt they might as well be.
“[Overcrowding] is a false alarm,” said Bernard Manning, a Hingham resident. “Mass General Law allows up to 35 students in a classroom…there were 36 students in my class without any detrimental increase [when I was a teacher].”
One audience member said there should be a middle ground between spending $50 million for a new school – the projected amount – and letting the 50-year old building go to rot.
According to School Committee member Ray Estes, the middle ground was analyzed, but proved unrealistic.
“There were several options looked at, ranging from renovation projects ranging to a new school under MSBA model school program. All the options were on the table as recently as Feb. 2,” he said. “On Feb. 2, we endured some structural issues at the middle school … several beams cracked. And the following day, Katherine Craven, executive director of the MSBA, came down…and the conclusion was a renovation project was no longer a feasible alternative.”
Some in the audience felt 50 years wasn’t old enough to justify replacing a building. Yet with the overcrowding of core spaces, the structural issues, the electrical, heating, and insulation problems, Estes remained adamant.
“It’s the question: what is your definition to a long-term solution? How much are you willing to put into those solutions before you have to come back later on?” he said.
Hingham resident Mike Barclay agreed, saying that to shuffle the sixth grade students around to the elementary schools to mitigate overcrowding at the middle school would be a fruitless endeavor.
“As far as saying we’ll shuffle the kids around, put sixth graders back into the elementary school. That’s shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. That’s a bad solution for what we should be doing as a town.”
The feasibility study eventually passed by a sizeable margin.
Other items that saw Town Meeting approval:
-- Appropriation of a total of $273,750 for Community Preservation Committee projects
-- $160,000 for the Acquisition of land for a new Wastewater Treatment Facility off Exit 15
-- Appropriated funds for Derby Street Corridor Roadway Improvements
No action taken on all items submitted by Bernard Manning that wished to amend the general bylaws for town elections, which Town Council said would be illegal.
Town Meeting continues tonight at 7 p.m. at the high school, with 16 remaining warrant articles.