HANSON — The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, Dec. 17 discussed updated information and concerns surrounding the ongoing school differences with Whitman surrounding assessment formula for W-H Regional Schools.
Selectmen Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett and Selectmen Matt Dyer were slated to meet Wednesday, Dec. 18 with Whitman counterparts and town administrators to further discuss a proposed compromise assessment approach for the W-H Regional Schools.
The board’s agenda Dec. 17 included discussion on the costs of de-regionalizing and of the assessment issue with Town Counsel and possible next steps.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said the Dec. 4 meeting of the new Regional Agreement Committee concluded with a vote to temporarily disband [see related story] the panel to permit discussions on a smaller scale to facilitate negotiation. She said whatever is discussed in the smaller sessions would “absolutely be brought back” for discussion by Hanson Selectmen.
“The discussion was how we should move forward with the regional agreement and it was made abundantly clear at that meeting that Whitman was going to go statutory this year,” she said. “The way the composition of the School Committee [stands], with the 6-4 — six Whitman votes to four Hanson — the fact that we’ve had DESE weigh in and all … more than likely, regardless what the School Committee voted, ultimately we would end up with the statutory formula.
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.
FitzGerald-Kemmett reported that Whitman Selectman Randy LaMattina would be willing to enter into an agreement calling for a statutory formula for fiscal 2021, after which the towns would discuss a transition to a full statutory assessment system.
Going forward, Whitman Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski said he favored opening the agreement to something of a hybrid formula that would not be fully statutory nor alternative.
“I don’t know what that looks like,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “Part of that is the school audit that both towns have agreed to fund.”
She sought to clarify that the audit is to provide information the towns need.
“If we’re being asked to write a check, we need to know what that check is for, pure and simple,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “It is not a value judgment, it is not an indictment of anybody. We have a fiduciary responsibility to have transparency into the way the money is being spent.”
She pointed out that, were the schools not part of a region, that transparency — as with all other town departments — would be easier to achieve.
Dyer said the audit had no connection to any suspicions about school finances.
Every year, we choose a department to audit,” he said. “This is just regular business.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett agreed, but admitted the impetus was also a need for more information. She described the towns’ relationship as currently siloed where the schools are concerned, and that the audit could lead to help the towns get onto the same page.
“They’d be sitting at our department head meetings on a weekly basis and they’d be talking to one another,” she said. “We’re trying to level that playing field and get that level of information we’ve got from the other departments in town.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett said the board has also been receiving a lot of questions about whether de-regionalization has been considered. It will not be figured out by the May Town Meeting, she said, stressing that people want to know what the structure and cost would be and the whether or not the town would benefit from it.
“I don’t have any of those answers right now,” she said. “My sense is that de-regionalization is probably not a viable — and certainly not a short-term viable — solution right now, but it’s something everyone deserves to have us look into, so we will look into it.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett asked Finance Committee Chairman Kevin Sullivan at what point his board should be looped in.
“Ultimately, FinCom has to play the hand we’re dealt, based on what the schools provide in their budget,” he said. “It’s a little bit discouraging to me that they’ve shown such a high increase already in December.”
He pointed to the $2.5 million in recommendations are an indication that an even higher budget increase than in previous years.
“We’re throwing things like full-day kindergarten right on top,” Sullivan said. “Is this the best time to do that? If they eased into this a little bit more, I feel we could make this work. … But I feel like we’re hammering it down now.”
He argued it could motivate some residents to dig in and refuse to support any budget.
“I’ve gotten some very strong and loud feedback about the fact that, not only are we looking at the struggle of how the assessment will play out, but now we’re tacking on pretty large increase on top of that,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “They’re doing what they think they need to do.”
In other business, the board discussed a “No Knock Policy” against door-to-door solicitations, in which a list is drawn up and disseminated.
Police Chief Michael Miksch has noted a problem with such a policy concerning maintaining the list when people move or property is sold and the First Amendment considerations of group such as religious or political canvassers. He also noted the 2020 Census will be sending people door-to-door.
Miksch recommends that those who do not want solicitors knocking on their doors should post “No Trespassing” or “No Soliciation” signs, which the police can enforce.