HANSON — Selectmen voted on Tuesday, Oct 1 to stand by the current alternative school funding method for calculating the upcoming fiscal 2021 budget, and to send a letter to W-H Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak requesting information outlining how Hanson’s share of the regional school budget is calculated.
The vote came following an outline of the events surrounding the issue and leading up to a vote by Whitman Selectmen on Tuesday, Sept. 24 to support only the statutory funding method preferred by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
“I guess I look at things a little bit differently than maybe others do,” said Hanson Selectmen Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett. “There’s been a lot of rhetoric that I don’t intend to engage in — I don’t think it’s productive, in fact I think it’s counterproductive — it’s very difficult to get together with people and negotiate when you’ve got people hurling insults.”
She outlined a background of the funding issue, going back to 1991 when the present regional agreement was approved, basing funding on student population. Usually a 60-percent share for Whitman and 40 percent for Hanson.
“Historically, and without incident, that methodology has been used to assess the towns,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
Two years ago, the region opted to revise the regional agreement to update it reflecting schools that have closed or been built since 1991.
“Unbeknownst to anyone in Hanson, language was added to the revised regional agreement that changed the assessment method to be a statutory method,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “Under that assessment method, Whitman would pay less than it is currently paying, and Hanson would pay more as a result of the criteria used to measure wealth in a community.”
She noted that Whitman has still not executed the revised agreement and, while Hanson has done so, Selectmen have placed an article on the Oct. 7 Town Meeting warrant to rescind that previous Town Meeting vote as not being to Hanson’s advantage.
The Whitman Budget Override Evaluation Committee, established to review that town’s financial crisis, “discovered what they thought was an inequity in the way the towns were being assessed and insisted the towns use the statutory method,” FitzGerald-Kemmett stated. During a visit to Hanson Selectmen recently Szymaniak estimated that shift would transfer about $1 million in assessment from Whitman to Hanson.
She also mentioned the 24-member regional agreement committee proposed by the School Committee on Sept. 18.
“We agreed to be part of discussions as a show of good faith,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said, even while they did not commit to renegotiating the agreement. “Now we find ourselves in a position where the Whitman Board of Selectmen have effectively let us know they’re not interested in opening up a dialog. Their actions have made it clear that, despite what the school’s attorneys have said, and despite what our counsel has said, that they’re going to bulldoze through and insist upon the statutory method being used for assessments. Well, here in Hanson, we make decisions based on facts, on data and on the law.”
However, Whitman Selectman Randy LaMattina, on Tuesday night, and School Committee member Fred Small, on Wednesday, said school counsel has amended their position on the funding formula question since the Wednesday, Sept. 18 School Committee meeting.
“I can understand people disagreeing, and them having a different point of view over in Hanson than maybe we have in Whitman — and that’s cool,” Small said. “She conveniently made the point, ‘our attorney, along with the school’s attorney feels that the only method is the agreement method.’ That’s not true.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett took issue with Small’s charge.
“Although some members of the School Committee and the District may have received information regarding the assessment methodology from DESE and from the school’s attorney subsequent to the Sept. 18 WHRSD School Committee Meeting, nobody from the Hanson Board of Selectmen or their office was made privy to that information until Oct. 3 when the School Committee Chair shared it with me.” FitzGerald-Kemmett stated Friday. “If the information had been made available to us, it would have been part of our discussion and would have helped inform our decisions. For Mr. Small to suggest otherwise is preposterous and dangerously close to slander. Further, it does nothing to help move this discussion forward in a civil and cooperative way. “
Change of opinion
LaMattina had emailed Small a couple of questions to submit to DESE Regional Governance Director Christine Lynch after the Sept. 18 meeting, asking if both methods of assessment must be publicly discussed at a School Committee meeting prior to setting a budget and if the 1991 agreement, listing the alternative method handcuffs a regional school committee.
“In her email back to me, Christine’s very specific where she also states that she’s contacted our attorney,” Small said. “The man misspoke.”
Lynch also clarified methodology in which the school’s attorney was not well-versed.
“It does not limit the School Committee to only present the method defined in the agreement, the School Committee may choose to use either method,” Small said Lynch’s explanation stated. “They know that, but Laura Kemmett refused to even state that last night.”
He said the information from Lynch will come out at the next School Committee meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 9.
Small also pointed out that, should a budget go to a super town meeting, the statutory method is the only method that can be used. To describe it otherwise is a “big disservice to the residents of Hanson, to all the parents of the Whitman-Hanson Regional School District.”
The Education Reform Act of 1993 abolished anything a district has spelled out in another agreement, Small said. An agreement/alternative method did not even exist until 1996.
FitzGerald-Kemmett also said she had spoken with Whitman Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski several weeks ago, at which time “we agreed that the path forward would probably be for us to lay all the numbers on the line and have a civil dialog. Apparently, others did not get that memo.” Kowalski was not present at the Sept. 24 Whitman Selectmen’s meeting.
“It was before we had a lot of information and other viewpoints,” Kowalski said of the cinversation with FitzGerald-Kemmett. “That’s probably not inaccurate. I don’t foresee Whitman looking backwards and trying to reclaim money that we didn’t receive but we should have, but what we should do is look forward.”
Kowalski said he was the one who asked for the assessment funding item be placed on the Sept. 24 Selectmen agenda and had urged Town Administrator Frank Lynam to bring the issue to some kind of a vote with the intent that Selectmen should be asking the School Committee to use the statutory agreement.
“Immediately after the meeting, I texted all the members and told them, ‘good job,’” Kowalski said Wednesday morning. “They looked at everything rationally and were very clear.”
Whitman resident Shawn Kain, who had urged Whitman Selectmen not to back Hanson officials into a corner at the Sept. 24 meeting, attended Hanson’s meeting, as well.
“There are good people out there who want to have that conversation,” said Selectman Matt Dyer, gesturing toward Kain. “Having a conversation doesn’t hurt.”
The letter Selectmen approved is designed to obtain information aimed at allowing the town to fully explore its options, which include de-regionalization of K-8 schools, renegotiating the regional agreement, litigating, etc., FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
“The Hanson Board of Selectmen stands by the current alternative school funding method for calculating the upcoming 2021 fiscal year budget,” the letter drafted by interim Town Administrator Meredith Marini concluded. “The Board further believes this information will provide a better understanding of the cost per community.”
The letter seeks the following information from Szymaniak:
• A breakdown of costs for each district school, including utilities, insurance and maintenance;
• The number of all employees in each school, their salaries and benefits costs;
• The number of students in each school, including special ed students and the town where they live;
• Transportation costs; and
• A detailed explanation of the savings from the closing of the Maquan School, indicating if, and where the staff was relocated.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said the town is aware that enrollment in Hanson schools is declining rapidly and that there are two schools in Hanson to Whitman’s three, and that “a disproportionate amount of special education costs — perhaps as much as 86 percent — are attributable to Whitman.”
“Given all that, I am hard-pressed to see how any objective person could reasonably believe that Hanson needs to pay more,” she said. “Nevertheless, we will take a look at the data, and we will take a look at the law and the facts.”
She also took exception to attempts to portray Hanson as a wealthier town trying to take advantage of Chapter 70 funding meant for Whitman.
“Here in Hanson, we also have folks living at, or below, the poverty level,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said, noting her experience as a food pantry volunteer and board member. “In addition, here in Hanson, we have a lot of multi-generational households, which statistically looks like a high per-household income unless you drill down to see that there are four, five or six adults living in a house.”
Hanson is not a wealthy community, she said.
“We are a community living within our means and with our financial house in order,” FitzGerald-Kemmett she said.
“If they’re complaining about the way that Hanson’s valued, it’s not that anybody’s taking away money,” Small said. “The state’s not giving them money. Their beef is with the DOR (Department of Revenue) and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, not with Whitman.”
Story updated on Friday, Oct. 4.