HANSON — The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, Jan. 7, supported the drafting of a letter to the School district saying they are — in conjunction with Whitman — conducting an audit of school expenditures in hopes the district will “open up their books” so the work can be done when an auditor is hired.
Outgoing interim Town Administrator Meredith Marini said a retired official that Hanson Town Accountant Todd Hassett had recommended is already swamped with post-retirement consulting work and will not be able to take on a School District audit for Whitman and Hanson town officials. He did provide some names, and she has been in communication with Whitman Town Administrator Frank Lynam on the matter and Marini has also been looking at regional agreements, especially those involving two communities, for comparisons to W-H.
“We are united, Whitman and Hanson, in being committed to looking at the books to see where money’s being spend and kind of ticking and tying that to the ask that we’ve got before us,” said Selectmen Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett. “I don’t want to hire an auditor only to find that we’re not going to have access to those records. I’m not suggesting that’s the case, but I just want to make sure.”
Representatives of the Whitman and Hanson boards of selectmen were slated to have another discussion on the school assessment issue Wednesday.
“This is a very specialized discipline, to be able to audit school books,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “It’s not your garden-variety auditor that you’re looking for … it’s a much more specialized discipline so it may not be easy to find this person, but we need to find the right person to do the job.”
She said there is nothing to discuss in terms of revising the regional agreement until an audit is completed.
“We don’t know where the money’s being spent,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
She also noted that, with a regional agreement still in place, she did not see how Whitman officials could be insistent on using the statutory assessment formula instead of an alternative one as the district towns have done in the past.
The statutory method takes into account a town’s minimum per pupil expenditure designated by DESE — the minimum local contribution — which fluctuates based on inflation, wage adjustment, town’s total earned income, property values and municipal revenue growth. Anything in a budget over the minimum local contribution goes to the regional agreement, based on pupil population, for any other operating expense.
There is no requirement for unanimous agreement by both communities to use the statutory method.
The agreement/alternative method uses strict per-pupil representation to assess the communities, the method currently used by the district. Both communities have to pass the assessment methodology prior to the budget distribution or at town meeting in order to use this method. If one town does not vote the budget forward and the other does, it does not constitute unanimous agreement for the method to be used.
Town Counsel Katherine Feodoroff had been asked to brief Selectmen on the process going forward if a statutory budget is presented and what “potential plays” the town can make, especially if a state take-over of the schools occurs.
“It seems to me that we control the [Town Meeting] warrant,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “I can certainly see the writing on the wall … but that doesn’t mean I’m going to be comfortable knowing there’s a regional agreement in place, voting for statutory as a selectman.”
She said she does not think it is in the best interests of citizens and said her preference would have been for negotiations to have been opened prior to Whitman and the School Committee voting to go with the statutory formula. FitzGerald-Kemmett said she did not think that would be in the best interests of Hanson.
“Everybody wants the budget approved, because when you don’t approve the budget a whole bunch of automatic processes go into place,” Feodoroff said.
Town Meeting options are to amend from the floor.
She said despite the past drafting of the regional agreement, the new state law was passed requiring the statutory assessment.
“Your option is to vote it down — and then they don’t have an approved budget,” she said. That sends it back to the School Committee to either acquiesce to what the dissenting town wants or come back with a different assessment, which the town would have to vote up or down at another Town Meeting. With no budget by the new fiscal year on July 1, the state imposes a 1/12 budget based on the assessment of the previous fiscal year — through the statutory method.
The next step would be a “super town meeting,” with the state able to take over a district if that fails to produce a budget by Dec. 1.
“Nothing gets done without the state signing off,” Feodoroff said. Sometimes the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) approves a budget greater than was originally requested.
“The sad part is the kids are being held hostage by this,” said Selectman Wes Blauss. “In the end its not even Whitman vs. Hanson.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett asked if the situation didn’t boil down to a breach of contract.
“We’re being painted into a corner and it just doesn’t seem fair,” she said. “I know the law isn’t always fair but it’s befuddling to me that a confluence of facts and events would get us to a place where a town literally has very little control over what we are going to spend on our schools.”