HANSON — Voters approved the amendment to the Regional Agreement governing the assessment formula, to fall into line with the vote taken by Whitman Monday, July 27.
They also approved the Selectmen’s recommended school budget 434-83 and the budget as a whole, based on the Selectmen’s recommended budget of $11,214,177 — at Town Moderator Sean Kealy’s motion — after the assessment article passed.
The vote was checked by a hand count after a resident asserted that visitors may have voted.
The town convened its 200th annual Town Meeting — one of the few bicentennial events not cancelled by the coronavirus pandemic — on Wednesday, July 29. There were 518 residents attending.
The outdoor session was held, like Monday’s Whitman Town Meeting, at the ball fields behind Dennis M. O’Brien stadium.
Kealy led the meeting in a moment of silence to all those lost to COVID-19 as well as a round of applause for the health care workers and first responders who cared for those who contracted the virus.
In another concession to the pandemic, Kealy — instead of individual department heads reading articles they have proposed — read all articles into motion with Selectman Matt Dyer making all seconds. Some of the warrants’ more routine articles were combined into one of two consent motions to streamline the outdoor meeting before mosquitoes became a concern after dusk.
Kealy also appointed Barbara Arena as deputy town moderator to help recognize those wishing to speak in the dispersed gathering.
“We have a balanced budget,” said Selectmen Chairman Kenny Mitchell in announcing that the town’s budget would balance even if the school articles passed. “This wasn’t easy at all. This was a combination of the Board of Selectmen, our financial team, FinCom, department heads, Police, Fire, Highway [departments]. Everyone worked up until last night to get a balanced budget.”
There was $1,296,088 available in free cash; $1,311,186 in stabilization; $161,647 in school stabilization; $820,493 in water surplus; $4,205 in recreation retained earnings; and $15,585 in solid waste retained earnings.
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes echoed Whitman Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski’s analogy of the “Wizard of Oz” and the need to use heads, heart and courage in deciding the school funding issue.
“Tonight we have some tough decisions to make regarding the W-H Regional School District, public education itself and our greatest assets — our children,” Hayes said, noting that Hanson has the fifth-lowest tax levy in the area and fifth-highest in spending on police and fire and lowest spending in education.
He said he had attended Whitman’s Town Meeting and wondering where Kowalski was going with his reference to the 1939 MGM adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s children’s book, “The Wizard of Oz.”
“It takes courage, ladies and gentlemen to make tough decisions, it takes brains to think things through and do what’s best for schools and taxpayers, and you need to have a heart to realize we are all in the education of children together,” Hayes said. He noted that — just as in Whitman, the Finance Committee was unanimously against the article while Selectmen had voted unanimously to recommend it to voters.
“Some people will say that we probably should have got a better deal,” he said. “This is the only deal that is on the table for both of these towns.”
Hayes said a no vote would mean Hanson could lose $570,917 and would be assessed on the statutory formula. He reminded voters that the district is already on a 1/12 budget and faced a Dec. 1 deadline before the state completely takes over the schools if a budget was not approved. The district would lose more than 40 district positions in the interim as the state made its move.
“Class sizes will get larger and difficult to manage and with COVID-19 uncertainty and the future hanging in the balance, this looks pretty bleak for the school system,” Hayes said.
He noted that the assessment formula was adapted with the Education Reform Act in 1993, but the W-H District, for some reason did not.
“Our students are the leaders of our future,” he said. “Please vote yes on this article.”
An amendment was suggested from the floor to amend the article to change wording to split calculations for the statutory assessment cost and per-pupil cost method down the middle as it has been for years, increasing Hanson’s portion by $575,000 for 2021 and a decrease for Whitman in that amount. It was argued that moving to the statutory method alone would cost Hanson an additional $1,150,000 with a corresponding savings for the town of Whitman.
Hayes said that, if the amendment had been approved, the School District and Committee would have to start over again and Whitman would have to approve any change Hanson would make. Failing that, a super town meeting would be required.
“The problem with 1/12 budget is you can’t plan for what you’re going to do for the rest of the year. You need to have a budget in place” said resident Joseph O’Sullivan, noting the concerns of the MTA on the readiness of schools to open on time because of the pandemic.
“The strength of a school system isn’t the building, it’s the teachers,” he said.
Only 1 percent of 10,000 Massachusetts teachers said their schools are fully prepared to open in September; 41 percent said their schools are somewhat prepared and 58 percent said they are not prepared. The MTA has recommended a 10-week delay in school reopening during which time educators would work to “reimagine” what school will look like with distance learning and meeting later on whether to reopen or use a hybrid.
Resident Elizabeth Welch questioned whether Hanson was footing the bill for Whitman students because of the division of student population. Kealy cut short her remarks as off-topic when she began to criticize the quality of individual teachers.
“This is a difficult issue for the town of Hanson, for sure,” said School Committee member Christopher Howard, noting that after the towns make their minimum contribution, the 60-40 split based on student population kicks in. He said Hanson’s School Committee members fought hard to protect Hanson’s interests, before the Education Reform Act proved insurmountable.
“We discovered that all roads lead to statutory,” Howard said, strongly advising against the amendment and approve the original assessment article. “But this compromise helps the town of Hanson.”
Another resident noted that Hanson pays assessments to SST under the statutory formula as one of the eight member towns.
“We’re a partner with Whitman,” said resident Kim McCoy. “The statutory method is the preferred method for the regional school districts funding their schools, the statutory method has been used for years for other partnerships in this town without uproar or problem.”
Resident Jane Durante, who disagreed with the assessment agreement, asked by the Finance Committee voted against recommending the original article.
Finance Committee Chairman Kevin Sullivan said the article cannot be supported by the operating budget.
Resident Frank Melisi, who asked why — amid the concern for budget dollars — that children were not being mentioned.
“I haven’t heard much about the kids,” he said. “Last year’s school year failed our kids, not as the fault of anyone in this school system, the teachers, School Committee or anything like that. It was for unforeseen circumstances.”
He said students do not deserve a second year of having a wasted school year.
Kealy defended his motion for the Selectmen’s budget, as did Town Counsel Kate Feodoroff.
“Town Meeting is full of tradition, for sure, and Hanson’s tradition is normally to go with Finance Committee recommendations, but that’s not necessarily a legal obligation,” she said. “As a matter of fact, the Board of Selectmen are the ones who prepare the warrant so they, under the law, have control of the warrant.”
Both the $10.4 million Finance Committee column, which did not consider the apportionment passed in Article 5, and the Selectmen’s column of figures balanced.
“If we hadn’t passed Article 5, then I would have moved the Finance Committee’s numbers,” Kealy said.
Comments from the floor objected to it as being improper.
“By all means, I’d be happy to go to Superior Court on my own behalf,” said Kealy, who stressed he does not cast votes at Town Meeting.
There was also some discussion during the special Town Meeting concerning private road improvements as residents asked why such work would be done on private roads.
Highway Director Matt Cahill said the five miles of private gravel roads are required by town bylaw to be improved twice a year in the interest of public access and safety.