HINGHAM — The board of selectmen approved a $56 million school budget for the 2021 fiscal year, despite appeals from parents and school officials who packed the meeting to request additional funding.

“It breaks my heart, frankly, to not be able to fund the schools with all these important requests,” ChairwomanKaren Johnson told the standing-room only crowd. “I think we’re trying to do the best we can with the dollars that we have.”

The selectmen unanimously voted on Tuesday to send town administrator Tom Mayo’s proposed $112 million town budget for the 2021 fiscal year to the advisory committee to consider recommending to town meeting. The budget includes $56 million for the schools, a 4.4% increase over the 2020 fiscal year and $102,000 more than a level services budget. But, the number is about $900,000 less than what was initially requested.

A “status quo” budget

In a February presentation to the selectmen, Superintendent Paul Austin laid out several possible budgeting scenarios.

One option, referred to in the presentation as a “status quo budget,” would increase the district’s budget by around $2.4 million, or 4.4%. This would allow for already-agreed on salary increases and contractual obligations.

Another option, dubbed a “critical needs budget,” would have brought a school budget increase of $3.3 million, or 6.15%, with most of the additional funding going to increased staffing. The biggest asks were for additional math instructors for elementary and middle schools, with requests for $228,888 to hire three math specialists and $227,450 for six math tutors. It also included a request for a new middle school STEM teacher, two new paraprofessionals, two new special education teachers and a new preschool teacher.

Another scenario, with items that the district does not consider its highest priority but still sees as “highly critical” according to the presentation, would have increased the budget by 6.78 percent. This would have allowed funding for a new high school guidance counselor, a special education direction and a fine arts director along with four other new staff positions.

Tax bill override?

Leslie Wittmann, a Hingham Public Schools parent, told selectmen that Hingham spends the least per student out of the town's 19 benchmark communities.

“That feels wrong to me,” she said. “Hingham strives to be number one in our sports, academics, so many things.”

According to a 2018 financial presentation to the selectmen and advisory board, Hingham spent 11,565 per pupil in fiscal year 2017, less than 19 benchmark communities including Hull, Cohasset and Weymouth.

Wittmann suggested an operational override to proposition 2 ½ as an option to provide increased school funding, saying that the need for funding to deal with things like new technology and students' social and emotional health is growing faster than the town is typically allowed to raise taxes. Several other residents spoke in favor of such a measure.

Johnson agreed that Hingam's expenditures are increasing faster than the town's tax levy can increase and pointed to the town's relatively small commercial tax base as a limit on revenue.

But any discussion of a potential override would have to be done in consultation of the town's financial advisors, she said.

"It needs to be a holistic conversation," she said. "I think it's a really complicated discussion."

Selectman Mary Power pointed out that, for every dollar the town spends, 65 cents goes to education, including some expenses like benefits that are not included in the school budget. She also raised the concern that asking for an override to increase school funding could make town meeting voters less likely to approve potential tax increases for the Foster School building project.

The average Hingham homeowner pays about $10,000 in property taxes each year, and residents would likely not be willing to approve big increases to that number, Power said.

“It’s tough to live in Hingham,” with such a high tax rate, she said.

Libby Lewiecki, a school committee member who said she was speaking in a personal capacity, said the “tide is changing” on the concept of an override, and that town meeting voters would be in favor of it while also supporting major renovations or the rebuilding of Foster School.

“Not a success”

School committee Chairwoman Michelle Ayer said she was grateful for work the selectmen have done to advocate for the town’s public schools, and that she knows they are working to find additional sources of revenue.

“We know that schools take up a lot of the budget, but that’s the reality of public schools in 2020,” she said after the meeting, adding that the district will “make it work” with whatever funding it receives.

But, Ayer said gaps in school funding means parents have to spend their own money to make up the difference, meaning less economically privileged students can get fewer opportunities than their peers.

“A balanced budget is not a success if students’ needs are not met,” she told the selectmen.

Follow Audrey Cooney on Twitter at @Audrey__Cooney.