Interim School Superintendent Peter Gray outlined what he called a new more transparent, justifiable budget process that will originate with the school councils rather than being controlled by the superintendent's office.
Gray introduced his leadership team at a meeting of the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School Committee and town officials Thursday night at Buker Elementary School. That team included Dr. Celeste Bowler, assistant superintendent for learning; Kathy Harris, director of student services, and John Hughes, the interim principal of the high school. This team will lead the district and develop a budget for next year that is more understandable to “everyone,” he said.
“We are looking to make philosophical and cultural changes in the way the district operates,” Gray told the joint meeting.
Gray indicated that he and his team, most of whom are new to the district, plan to make a break with the past.
“Too often we do things because that is the way we have done it in the past,” he said.
Notably in the budget development process, “a lot of money, control was in the superintendent's office.”
By Dec. 9, Gray and his team will hear from each school council or school improvement committee what they feel they must have in next year's budget to meet the mission of educating all children in its school.
He proposed that the School Committee hold a Saturday workshop on Jan. 7 to study the budget. And on Jan. 30, there would be public presentations of the budgets so the public can become familiar with all details of the budget.
On Feb. 9, he proposed meeting with the School Committee and the finance committees of each town to deliberate on the proposed budget. And under his timeline, the school committee would vote on the school budget on Feb. 13.
Gray's proposals seem to resonate well with the School Committee members and members of the Hamilton and Wenham Bords of Selectmen. Members of the towns' finance committees were also in the audience.
The school committee and towns would like to avoid the heated debate over the school budget that occurred last fall.
Bowler said the district faces “a hard, tough road” in making these changes.
“Wonderful things are happening in the schools. The teachers are dedicated,” she said. But some change is necessary.
“We are prepared somewhat for the flak we expect to get. We are putting on our suits of armor,” she said.
Hughes praised the schools and the students, saying he has found “positive energy, an excellent atmosphere” in the high school.
The district, however, needs to adapt to the demands of the 21st century, he said. The state education agencies and colleges are demanding a more flexible student and a more flexible teacher, he said.
In five years, the predictions are that textbooks will be replaced with licensed on-line texts, he said. The good news is that the electronic textbooks will cost about half what the paper textbooks cost, he said.
“It is an exciting time to be in a school,” Hughes said.
The announcement of the budget process was preceded by about an hour presentation by Gray that updated the district's progress on 125 separate recommendations from the operational audit. Evergreen Solutions, an outside consulting group, conducted the $90,000 audit, which was authorized by Town Meeting voters in both towns.
Gray divided up the recommendations into four main categories – the ones the district has already completed, ones it is working on, others that will take more than this year to complete and finally ones that are not practical or have been rejected.
The recommendations ranged from the mundane and trivial to serious restructuring of the class sizes and reducing the district's expenditure on special education programs.
Thirty three of the recommendations are already being implemented, Gray said. Another 40 are being worked on.
To date, there has not been significant savings from the recommendations, he said.
The next 40 include two recommendations that Evergreen estimates would save almost $3 million.
It is not clear whether these recommendations will be implemented or to what degree.
Notably Evergreen proposed that the district increase its student to teacher ratio by eliminating 17 teachers. That recommendation, which would raise the teacher-student ratio to the state average, would save more than $1.2 million.
Gray said the budget process would determine how many teachers are needed by the district. But he cautioned that to raise the ratio to the state average might mean that the district would provide only “an average education” for Hamilton and Wenham students.
The other large savings, about $1.7 million, would occur if the district spent only what the state average is for various expenditures, including special education programs.
Gray said that recommendation would be considered in the next budget.
Harris, who supervises the special education programs, warned the committee and boards of selectmen against allowing the community to become divided between families with special education students and those with students in the general education programs.
“This is scary water,” she said.
She said she believes that the district can improve the education provided for all students.