HOLDEN, Mass. — Inside the high school auditorium, Wachusett Schools Superintendent Thomas Pandiscio spoke Monday night to an audience of parents, residents and officials from all five member towns at the State of The District address, unveiling the long-awaited five year plan for the AIM21 technology goals as well as making the case for revenue sharing among the member towns.
In the first half of the address, Pandiscio gave an overview of the Wachusett District's performance, stating that "our schools are doing well, especially considering the economic climate that we are in and the challenges that we face."
Moreover, while schools across the nation are drawing criticism for "lagging behind the rest of the world," Pandiscio said that after working in this school district for 28 years he "can state categorically that today’s students are better prepared than graduates of the past. They take a more rigorous course load that consists of higher-level math and science and they are held to more exacting testing standards."
The superintendent explained that not only is education alive and well in Massachusetts, "as students in our state fare well against international comparison," but that Wachusett students outperform the state by a large measure as well.
"Our students are performing very well indeed in that they are only outperformed by students from a few nations," he explained. "It is well to point out when making these comparisons that we test all of our students in the United States and not merely a select group, a fact that places our results in an even better light."
Citing some of the district's educational successes, Pandiscio referred to how efforts to implement a strong early literacy program have paid dividends and allowed district students to become stronger readers than ever before.
Yet there was also the struggle over MCAS at the middle school math level.
"We can solve this problem, just like we solved our reading problem," he said. "The formula is the same—we must take a targeted approach that is based upon solid research and best practice. And—this is the hard part—we have to exercise the patience necessary to see meaningful results. We have developed such a plan and will include its initial phase in our FY13 budget."
The superintendent also discussed the district's intent to move schools into the 21st century "and take seriously our responsibility to make all of our students college and career ready."
After member towns voted down the district's request for January special town meetings for the technology initiative, even town officials who supported the technology program itself wanted to see a more clear and far-reaching plan for how to pay for it.
Since then, the school department has been working to build a five-year comprehensive plan for the technology acquisition, and the superintendent unveiled it to residents Monday night.
"We learned a great deal from our meetings with member towns regarding this initial proposal and have substituted a five-year plan for technology acquisition in its place," said Pandiscio.
The plan will call for both hardware and networking installation, with hardware to be included in the operations budget of the district over a five year period, and they will seek to bond the wireless installations.
According to Pandiscio, beginning next year the district seeks to pilot an iPad installation in four high school classrooms, five middle school classrooms and four elementary school classrooms — the cost coming to $88,501.
In the second year, at a cost of $300,402, the district will ramp up and implement classroom access to students in grades 2, 5, 8 and 9. They will also pilot a lap-top implementation in four high school classrooms.
For year three, at a cost of $660,685, Pandiscio said "we'd seek to have 25 percent capacity in all elementary school classrooms. We'd implement one to one building access to all middle school students and we're hoping that we'd be developing enough understanding and support for the utilization of technology to establish a one to one laptop leasing program at the high school."
For $756,210, year four would see an increase in the district's utilization of "some type of digital device" at the elementary level to 40 percent, and 50 percent in year five at $743,841.
In total, the district would be looking at about $2,547,639 that would be included in their general fund budget
Meanwhile, for the five-year wireless budget Pandiscio said they would look at getting the first year out of district funds and the operations budget in order to install wireless access points at sites at the Middle School and High School. The first year cost would be $66,700.
In year two, we would seek bonding from the member towns in order to establish wireless access points in all schools," said Pandiscio.
This would come to $82,210, and with the next three years of payments (Year 3: $77,346. Year 2: $74,968. Year 5: $72,598) the wireless project would add up to $373,822.
"It is our intent to include the majority of these costs in the operations budget; however, this will not be possible unless we rethink the manner in which we fund our schools," said Pandiscio. The superintendent pointed out that the per pupil expense of the regional district is the lowest of all the regional school districts in the state.
According to Pandiscio, the district has made numerous efforts in order to mitigate the effects the lack of revenue has had on the education of students — from aggressively pursuing competitive grants, to joining the GIC.
Yet Pandiscio said that "each winter and spring, we gather with town officials to debate the budget, making some towns happy and some towns sad—and never meeting the needs of students."
"There has to be a better way," he continued. "A way that would allow us to have adequate town services and adequate school funding: a way that would allow us to plan programs and acquisitions; and a way that would prevent the constant bickering and negativity."
For Pandiscio, that better way is the through revenue sharing.
"We have taken the time to look at school funding as a percentage of town revenue over the last 12 years," said the superintendent. "This percentage stands at an average of 44.2 percent of the town revenue over that period. One can debate this inequity from a number of vantage points; I would ask that you simply look at the results. While the District has been left with the lowest per pupil expense in the state, our towns have accumulated relatively substantial reserves, even in this poor economy."
Looking at where each of the member towns sit relative to their reserve, Pandiscio said Holden sits 6 percent of their budget and reserve; Paxton with 4.4 percent; Princeton with 10.9 percent; Rutland with 4.5 percent; Sterling with 10 percent, and the district with 0.3 percent of its budget and reserve.
While Pandisicio said clearly the towns need reserves, he stressed that money in reserve doesn't serve any interest.
"Money in reserve doesn't help children, it doesn't by fire trucks, it doesn't pay police officers," he said. "It becomes money in reserve, and it becomes in mind the result of the desire not to plan."
The superintendent put together a five year budget, as well as a five-year trend analysis for both state and local revenues using the 10 year history for state revenue and 3.9 percent annual increase for local revenues based upon a recent revenue estimate from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundations.
"We then looked at this five-year budget against the revenue forecast and considered what it would look like if the schools continued to receive 44% of local revenue," said Pandiscio, showing a graph that demonstrated a significant shortfall.
"Finally, we examined what the budget would look like if instead the schools received an average of 48% over the five-year period," he added. "The budget comes into balance and the school district is able to plan its future in a rational and linear manner."
The superintendent said the five-year budget that they have created is not a wish list "but it is a budget that avoids the annual fear of layoffs and program reductions and it is a budget that allows us to continue our efforts to maintain the investment we have made into our school plants. With such a budget in place the professionals that run our schools could rightly focus on the management of the educational programs that need to be developed in order to bring our educational programming into the 21st century."
Following the address, initial reactions from local officials in the audience were varied.
Holden Selectman Anthony Renzoni said that for the superintendent to compare reserves of the towns vs. the school district was like apples and oranges.
"It's very misleading slide," he said. "A lot of our reserves are tied up in infrastructure and investment, we're not sitting on money to hoard money in our town, and we're in pretty good shape. There's no $2 million in extra money lying around, our budget's pretty tight and to bump it this 4 percent would be a tough nut to crack."
Yet Renzoni was also glad to see the five year plan for the technology initative.
"This initiative is important, and the school district is absolutely right, we need to phase into this and this is at least a more responsible approach as opposed to demanding a town meeting and asking for a million dollars. At least we're spelling out now a five year plan, so I'm encouraged that they are planning this out."
Sheila Dibb, a selectman from Rutland, said that she was actually surprised the superintendent didn't go for more money over five years for the technology initiative.
"It actually seemed low to me," she said. "I do think you'll see the towns discussing whether or not to put that piece into an override question, and not with the regular budget. Because the regular budget numbers that got shown are a significant increase when you're approaching 80 million dollars at that point."
Echoing the apples to oranges comparison, Dibb also said she thought the superintendent lost members of the audience "when he started attacking our reservers a little bit."
"In Rutland's case, we just added over a quarter of a million dollars two months ago. Our bond rating had dropped because we were so low, so they just used there's as well."
While she thought it was productive to see where the superintendent was headed, she doubted much of it would help at all this year.
"Very little of it was relevant this year, and it was interesting to see if any of the towns will really go for it. The consistent issue we have is that he doesn't do a needs-based budget, he does a revenue based budget - 'here's how much I'm going to spend when you give it to me' — and that's a big jump in percentage."
Moreover, with the intial 44 percent Pandisico presented, Dibb said he wasn't factoring in a lot of the debt service, which would bring Rutland much closer to 51.
Selectman Ken O'Brien added that he thought the most difficult time politically that he has experienced has been during these school, town shortfalls as "one of the big problems that we have is the state does not support the schools to the level that they should."
"As a result, we have these sharp exchanges, and it's a very difficult set of choices we have to make," he said. "I do think the schools are going to make a big push for money, and it's not going to be a small ask. We can budget a 3.5 percent increase, but the ask that they initially make is probably going to be a lot more than that, so it's probably going to be a long drawn out budget season."