WHITMAN — After presiding over the swearing-in of a new police chief, deputy chief and police sergeant, Selectmen on Tuesday, Sept. 24 voted 4-0 to support only a statutory-based assessment formula for calculating school budgets.
“This isn’t a way to pick Hanson’s pockets,” said Selectman Randy LaMattina before the 4-0 vote. “This is a way that we should have known about. … I’m not saying anyone is wrong. I don’t know why that is, but I do know we have to fix it.” Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski was absent.
But first, there was the matter of promoting three WPD officials to new leadership positions within the department.
Whitman Town Hall Auditorium was filled with family members, friends and colleagues of Police Chief Timothy Hanlon, Deputy Chief Joseph Bombardier and Sgt. Patrick Burtt-Henderson as they were sworn in by Town Clerk Dawn Varley.
New badges were pinned on by Hanlon’s wife Lori; Bombardier’s wife Kim, as his father Paul looked on; and Burtt-Henderson’s wife Chrissie, who was accompanied by his dad Dave.
Hanlon had been appointed as chief by an Aug. 6 vote of the Board of Selectmen, subject to negotiation of a contract. They voted Tuesday to approve that contract and his appointment before Varley, who called her duty a great honor, swore him in.
Each ceremony was followed by warm and enthusiastic applause.
Selectmen had also voted to appoint Bombardier as deputy chief on Aug. 6, also subject to negotiation of a contract, approving his contract and appointment Tuesday.
“Joe and I went to school together,” Varley said before administering his oath. “He’s a year older than me,” she joked, adding, “Joe was always wiser. I’m very, very proud to be swearing you in.”
Burtt-Henderson took his oath of office after Selectmen voted to approve his contract and appointment. His initial appointment, too, had been voted Aug. 6, subject to negotiation of a contract.
Following the promotional ceremonies, Selectmen reconvened in their meeting room to address the balance of their agenda.
The board adjourned before addressing whether to appoint two members to a new regional agreement committee. The School Committee voted to form the panel renegotiating the assessment formula [see related story, page one]. That committee must wait until after Hanson Town Meeting voters decide on an Oct. 7 warrant article on revoking a past vote in support of a revised regional agreement. Whitman Selectmen meet next on Tuesday, Oct. 8.
Town Administrator Frank Lynam reported to the board that he and Selectman Randy LaMattina, who chairs the town’s Budget Override Evaluation Committee, have spent a great deal of time working on the issue and communicating with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. LaMattina has also been talking with Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak and School Committee members.
“The district can follow an existing agreement that specifies the way to assess each town for its share of the operating budget, or you can use the statutory method, which from DESE is the preferred method,” Lynam said. “The method that the state intends for regions to use is the statutory method.”
That formula calculates the financial ability of each member town in a district, establishes what the aid for each town will be as the starting point under the statutory formula created as part of the Education Reform Act in 1993. The 1991 agreement calculates assessments based on student population — of which 59.88 percent are from Whitman — under the alternative formula.
“Over the years, we have continued to assess each town based solely on student count,” Lynam said. “It’s not the intent of the statute or the regulations promulgated by DESE.”
He said no matter what formula is selected, it will not change the system, but it will affect the share of the budget borne by each town.
LaMattina said Education Reform set up a situation in which a school district could choose a formula.
“What they said is not incorrect,” he said. “Yes, there is an alternative method. Is that a legal method? Yes, it is. The argument that Whitman is saying is that there are two methods annually … The state actually recommends and puts it in place that makes it impossible not to use the statutory method. It is actually a fallback method when, and if, you ever got to a super town meeting.”
LaMattina said that is because it is the most equitable way to produce a budget for a school district.
“It is a self-correcting method,” he said. “It is adjusted constantly … based on economic factors.”
School Committee member Fred Small helped Whitman officials work through the superintendent’s office to write a letter to DESE seeking clarification on the scope of the 1991 agreement.
“The 1991 agreement does not limit the School Committee to only present the method defined in the agreement,” wrote DESE Director of Regional Governance Christine Lynch. “The School Committee may choose either method.”
LaMattina said town officials have to do what is ethically, legally and morally right for the people of Whitman and their children.
“When you look at what we’re paying over what the state says our minimum contribution should be — we’re $3.7 million over what the state says our minimum contribution should be — and that’s just one factor, then we need to do something or we will not be able to maintain services to where they should be,” he said.
Lynam said there are about 20 financial criteria on which the local contribution is calculated, based on economic conditions in a town, including value of property and median family income, among others.
“The kids that need this aid should get it,” LaMattina said. “That’s what we’re talking about.”
Selectman Brian Bezanson agreed that the board has a fiduciary responsibility to residents to do what is in their best interest. Selectman Dan Salvucci confirmed that South Shore Tech has used the statutory method since1995.
LaMattina said it has less to do with the regional agreement than with equity, as it is an option “open to any town.”
“Every region has had to go through this since the memo in 2007, if not before,” said Selectmen Justin Evans.
Lynch had told him Whitman is, in fact, “a little late to the game with this,” LaMattina said. She also told him “it’s very clear you may have a fight ahead of you, because it’s a one-on-one battle,” he recounted.
Whitman resident Shawn Kain, while agreeing that the statutory method is the way to go, based on the research and methodology, but said he has concerns about the time frame. He cautioned a vote at this time could be viewed in Hanson as an aggressive act.
“Expecting that Hanson could make that jump in one year, is a difficult expectation,” Kain said. “Absorbing $1 million in one year would be difficult.”
He advocated working together to hash out disagreements between the two towns to help stay on good terms with Hanson while the problem is discussed.
Salvucci, while understanding the argument said Whitman has already cut municipal department budgets twice for the fiscal 2020 budget.
“I think the department heads took the bull by the horns and did what they had to do to give the schools what they needed and cut their own budgets,” Salvucci said. “It may be Hanson’s time to do that.”
Evans said he had initially leaned in Kain’s direction, but the rate of Whitman’s assessment increases coupled with Hanson’s student population decline coupled with increasing home values mean the situation is getting worse.
“The longer we delay the deadline, the more difficult it will become.” Evans said.
Small said that, regardless of the funding formula used, the school budget’s bottom line will not change. Budget Override Evaluation Committee member Chris George said the statutory method will be the most equitable way to cut up the school budget.
“I know there are some School Committee members [who] I don’t know where they stand,” George said. “I can tell you, as a citizen, if you’re a School Committee member and you’re considering not voting for the statutory method, you’ve got to think long and hard, because — it’s not a threat, it’s a promise — I’m coming for you with a whole bunch of other residents. We’ve given away $3.9 million since 2015. It’s only going to continue to get worse if we don’t fix it now.”
Evans said adopting the statutory method now helps Hanson by giving them more time to prepare for budget decisions before May town meetings.
“We’re being proactive here,” Bezanson agreed. “We’ve already jumped in with [LaMattina’s] committee. We’re working on the next year, trying to figure out how we’re going to do this. With this we have a clear vision as to how we can approach the next year. … For us not to do this, is suicide for us.”