November 17, 2020 by Carol Britton Meyer
So far 800 signatures have been collected on a petition advocating for increasing the school budget in order to fully fund the schools, posted recently on Facebook by "Supporters of Hingham Public Schools."
Suzanne Garland, Susie O'Horo, and Alexis MacElhiney are leading the group, with other members of the community in supporting roles.
"Education has always been a focus for me," said Garland, whose mother was a teacher for 40 years in a variety of different public school systems. "The value of a good public school system to a town and its children is impossible to quantify. When COVID hit and schools shut down, I immediately started thinking of not just my own children, but also the children throughout the state who are provided with so many necessary services through their schools."
Garland explained how the petition came about. During the process leading up to the reopening of the Hingham Public Schools this fall, it became clear to her and other parents and caregivers that those school systems "with proper funding" were in a better position to reopen.
After researching the per-pupil spending of Hingham and its benchmark communities, Garland learned that Hingham "ranks lowest among the 20 comparison towns."
As a result, she shared a graph with a variety of local Hingham groups on Facebook that showed per pupil spending plotted against property tax rates. "Hingham is also among the lowest in tax rates," Garland observed. "This was eye-opening to a lot of people, who started asking what we could do about it."
A group of parents, including Garland, started talking about how they could get involved in trying to ensure that the HPS system "receives the funding and attention that it deserves," Garland explained. "We realized that we needed to find a way to make it clear to town officials that parents and caregivers are paying attention to where town funding is being directed."
Supporters of Hingham Public Schools' main goal is "to get the schools the funding that they need to give our children the education they so deserve," Garland said. "This goes beyond COVID, which presents its own unique challenges."
One of the group's concerns is that many HPS buildings are in need of "serious attention. Foster needs to be replaced. Inside the buildings, the schools need more full-time and part-time teachers, administrative staff, coaches, and maintenance employees," according to Garland.
The hope of Supporters of Hingham Public Schools members is to increase civic engagement by organizing parents/caregivers to advocate for fully funding the schools to Hingham's town officials.
"We also want to advocate for a value-based budget that helps all citizens of the town and doesn't pit one interest against another. We agree that our police officers, fire department, and seniors deserve new facilities," Garland said, referring to the Nov. 21 Special Town Meeting.
At that time, Hingham citizens who participate in the live meeting on the High School multi-purpose athletic field will be asked to consider a warrant article asking for approval to move forward with the $5.5 million purchase of a parcel of land at 335 Lincoln St. for potential use as a new combined Hingham Police and Fire Department public safety building. This will be the only discussion and vote at that meeting.
"We hope that parents/caregivers show up at both the Special Town Meeting and the next Annual Town Meeting, tune in to Board of Selectmen and School Committee meetings, and really pay attention to how money is being allocated in town," Garland said. "We intend to read the letter that's included with the online petition at the Special Town Meeting."
Selectmen chair weighs in
Selectmen Chair Mary Power told the Hingham Anchor during a telephone interview that the board understands the concerns relative to school facilities and the school budget. "We continue to move forward with Foster School and the Plymouth River School window project in cooperation with the Massachusetts School Building Authority," she said. "Similar to the senior center and our public safety facilities, these capital needs aren't going to go away."
Power explained that as a result of "many years of strong financial stewardship, our town is in a position to be able to move forward on several capital projects at once -- and we're fortunate that because of our strong financial position we didn't have to make cuts to our Fiscal 2021 budget, lay off or furlough any town or school employees, or defer capital projects, as other communities have been forced to do.”
"Our Fiscal 2021 financial management plan fully funded the originally approved [town and school] FY21 budgets that were the result of a public, deliberative process that had the unanimous support of the Board of Selectmen, School Committee, and Advisory Committee," Power said. “Hingham also received CARES Act funding, which reimburses municipalities for COVID-related expenses incurred in 2021. The School Administration, in conjunction with the School Committee, has made decisions about how best to educate our children during the pandemic. The Board of Selectmen has fully supported those decisions."
The town's forecast group -- made up of the Chair of the Board of Selectmen, the Chair and Vice Chair of the School Committee, the Chair and Vice Chair of the Advisory Committee, the Town and Assistant Town Administrators, the Supt. of Schools, the Hingham Public Schools Business and Support Services Director, and the Town Accountant -- has been meeting monthly during the pandemic to review both revenues and expenses.
Power said the School Committee and School Department have been "very transparent about the incremental costs associated with the reopening of our schools, and we are working very closely with them, including possibly renting more [classroom] space."
At the same time, she said, "The pandemic has made it very clear that in some places, our town government is running 'lean and mean', to the point where it is not sustainable in the long-term. We’ve already started talking about this within the forecast group and will continue to do so during the Fiscal 2022 budget discussions, which will start in December and continue until the 2021 Town Meeting. There will be plenty of time for public comment during that process."
Looking toward the Nov. 21 Special Town Meeting, Power explained that since 2012, several town committees have been working to address space and facility deficiencies within the senior center and the town's public safety facilities. "We've explored a lot of options, and this land purchase [at 335 Lincoln St. for potential use as a new combined Hingham Police and Fire Department public safety building, at a cost of $5.5 million] gives us an opportunity to address facility issues at the 80-yr-old fire station on North Street, within the police department, and within the senior center, which based on our senior population should be five times bigger than it is." If the public safety facility project moves forward, the senior center would expand into the vacated space.
Power went on to say, "Just as we are continuing to move ahead with the Foster School and PRS window project because they are important for our community, I would hope that the citizens of Hingham would feel the same way about this land purchase and addressing space and facility deficiencies in public safety and the senior center.”
Power reiterated that because the town is in the fortunate position of being strong financially, "we can advance a number of capital projects at the same time."