The W-H School Committee, dismayed at the absence of a representative from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) at the Wednesday, Sept. 18 public hearing on the regional assessment method quizzed a school district attorney on the legal points surrounding the issue.
Hanson School Committee member Christopher Howard observed that the amended regional agreement’s funding formula seems to contradict the alternative/agreement method traditionally used by the district, and asked which takes precedence — the state’s new assessment regulation or the binding regional agreement.
School district lawyer Kevin Bresnahan said the existing regional agreement “does reflect an appropriate and allowable alternative assessment under the law and under the regulations,” as well as annual approval of a school budget constituting approval of the method. In any year that a budget is not approved by both towns and a district-wide meeting is needed, the regulations dictate that “the statutory method is the only can be used in that circumstance.”
“I would not be confident advising the committee that you could take a vote, given your existing regional agreement, to utilize the statutory method to calculate your initial budget without confirming that with [the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] DESE,” Bresnahan said. He argued the committee could not put forth a statutory budget under the current terms of the regional agreement.
Bresnahan said “unanimous approval of the towns” means that all towns in a district must approve it, rather than a town meeting vote total.
“We can talk about changing that, but we need to follow that,” Howard said of the alternative funding method currently used.
Hanson Selectmen Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett spoke for her board, stating that the assessment formula has always been per-pupil within the regional agreement.
She also confirmed the regional agreement revocation article is on the Oct. 7 warrant as an effort to neutralize the issue and give people a chance to be thoughtful.
“We really did not comprehend — and I mean to the person — the change that was being made to the agreement and it fell upon the Board of Selectmen to do what we felt was right, to rescind the original vote … until such time as a different agreement is struct,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “We stand ready to do what is in the best interests of the citizens of Hanson. We look to the School Committee to make a decision about what your next move is going to be.”
She said any participation required from selectmen, the board is ready to help. “Throwing hand grenades over the wall at each other” is not going to help improve education.
“We have an answer about what’s happened in the past, the question is what do we do going forward,” said Whitman School Committee member Christopher Scriven. He arugued that, unless the regional agreement is changed, the statutory method should be used as DESE regulations stipulate, going forward.
Whitman Budget Override Evaluation Committee member Chris George noted that the handbook Finance Committees in both towns follow outlines that assessment calculations for regional district member towns should be calculated on a statutory basis, noting that the SJC has affirmed that education assessment methodology in the DESE regulation supersedes any individual regional school agreement. Districts may opt for an alternative formula, but it must be approved by member communities each year.
“To me it’s pretty clear,” he said. “The 1991 agreement is superseded by state law. The reason why? Because they changed the way they did state aid. Following the regional agreement as it’s stated does nothing except reallocate aid entitled to the residents of Whitman to the residents of Hanson — it’s that simple.”
Hanson resident Bruce Young said Chapter 71 governs regional school district budgets, which W-H has been following since 1991.
“What I find strange as a citizen and taxpayer is that DESE would make a ruling that, in spite of all these things, the majority town can hold out for a super-town meeting … and the town with the most voters can impose its will on the minority community,” Young said.
Whitman Finance Committee member Rosemary Connolly, said that last year no one knew what the statutory method was, and that voters in both towns thought the law was being followed when it wasn’t.
“Essentially, $1 million of welfare money was diverted over to Hanson, and that’s the truth of it,” she said. “It is state aid intended for poor students.”
Connolly said the alternative method is there for “compassion, not exploitation.”
Whitman resident Shawn Kain said that, if people in both towns dug their heels in, nothing will be solved.
“I think we need to find a compromise,” he said. “I think there could be a third way that would still be an alternative agreement, but could be a multi-year step one way or the other.”
Kain said neither community is in a position to absorb $1 million in their budgets.
“If people dig their heels in, it’s going to get ugly,” he said.
School Committee member Dawn Byers of Whitman, noted that South Shore Tech uses the statutory assessment formula and that DESE has that in mind for all regional districts.
“From my reading of the Education Reform Act, they want minimum local contribution to provide equity to all students,” she said. “They want all students to have the best opportunity to learn equal to their neighbor and all the neighboring towns and all the towns across Massachusetts.”
She said DESE recognizes different towns have different abilities to pay.
Small said Whitman is currently paying $3 million more than its minimum contribution, while Hanson is paying just to their minimum level.
Bresnahan said the 1991 agreement will have to stand until approved by both towns and approved by the commissioner of education.
“Clearly, there are considerations on both sides here that should be part of the discussion about whether the existing agreement should stay in place or be amended,” Bresnahan said. “I’m just trying to tell you how things stand now what the law requires and what has been allowed in the past.”
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said he would be calculating a budget based on the alternative method, because that is the formula in place.
“That’s where I feel our office did not provide accurate information for the committees and the selectmen to know there was another method,” he said. “People dropped the ball in our office and we are dealing with it.”
The situation has been distressing for School Committee members, as well.
“I can’t say this enough — I hate this entire conversation,” Howard said. “We’ve got to figure this out. I think everyone agrees, this is not going to move us forward as a district.”
He said a new regional agreement committee might be needed to do that. School Committee member Fred Small of Whitman agreed.
“We need to fix the problem and fix it fast,” Small said. “Our administration right now is spending way too much time worrying about this and taking its eye off the ball, which is educating kids.”
“We haven’t done anything but this for almost a month and a half,” he said.
Whitman Finance Committee member David Codero commended Small for his comments, while disagreeing with one point on which Small had agreed with Young.
“Majority rule considered tyranny? There’s another word for it — it’s called democracy,” Codero said. “It’s a democratic procedure. For anyone to categorize it otherwise from the gallery? They’re wrong.”