HANSON — On the eve of the start to a new school year, Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak briefed Hanson Selectmen on district funding calculations, Whitman’s passing over the amended Regional Agreement at the May Town Meeting, and the potential impact of 15 years’ of Whitman billing errors for water and sewer at the high school.
During the Selectmen’s review of October Town Meeting warrant articles Tuesday, Aug. 27, the board added a place-holder article to revoke pervious Town Meeting approval of the amended Regional Agreement.
“If we don’t revoke the agreement we have in place, we could be locked into this right now … especially where it sounds ambiguous, at best,” said Hanson Finance Committee Chairman Kevin Sullivan in recommending a warrant article. “Just something to think about.”
“It’s easier to have it on, than not,” said Interim Town Administrator Meredith Marini.
There is no plan to revisit the fiscal 2020 school budget, Szymaniak said.
“One of my goals this year, after I met with School Committee last year, would be to be as up front with the Hanson Selectmen as inquisitive as the Whitman Selectmen have been,” Szymaniak said.
He reviewed how the Regional Agreement was revised in June 2018, and approved by Hanson Town Meeting that fall. Whitman voters, during a “difficult budget process,” Szymaniak noted, passed over the agreement.
“I started asking some questions about why the Regional Agreement was passed over, and the issue around funding came up,” he said.
There are two ways to fund a regional school district, according to Szymaniak. The statutory method is based on the minimum local school contribution and the alternative method, which does not — it is instead currently based on enrollment figures with Whitman bearing the cost of 60 percent of the school budget and Hanson 40 percent. Under the statutory method, he said Hanson might be paying more under the alternative method.
“It could be a substantial swing,” Szymaniak said. “I don’t know if members of the Regional Agreement Committee knew that the statutory method was going to have an impact on the town of Hanson as drastic as it has.”
The issue was slated for further discussion at the Wednesday, Aug. 28 School Committee meeting.
He sought a recommendation on the issue from district legal counsel on how to proceed without an approved and signed Regional Agreement and was advised that the statutory method would be used until that happens.
The minimum local contribution takes into account inflation, enrollment, wage adjustment, property values, income and municipal revenue growth.
W-H has been funded through the alternative method since 1991, and, despite a 2007 recommendation from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) that all regional school districts begin using the statutory method, the district did not make that change. He said the 2018 revised Regional Agreement it is inferred that the statutory method be used, but not expressly written out.
Selectman Jim Hickey said he would be interested in looking up School Committee minutes from those discussions to determine why the DESE memo was not recommended at that time.
Selectmen Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett said it was likely at the time that, while DESE was recommending, but it wasn’t required.
“It seems as time has gone on, it’s a firmer position that DESE’s taking,” she said.
“When DESE usually recommends, that means it’s in effect,” Szymaniak said, adding that he does not see that yet, but noted Dennis-Yarmouth is also grappling with the question.
FitzGerald-Kemmett also asked about the dollar amount Hanson would be shouldering, noting she had heard it to be about $900,000. Szymaniak confirmed that figure and said Whitman has not yet put the Regional Agreement on any warrant for a fall Town Meeting.
“We definitely appreciate the heads-up,” she said. “We appreciate being told about it.”
Whitman’s Override Evaluation Committee has hired consultant John Madden to conduct and audit/needs assessment, based on where the town could be financially in five years.
Marini said she has discussed the issue with Town Accountant Todd Hassett, who said the statutory agreement would likely be the one that would be used, based on his experience in other communities.
“We really need to know this sooner, rather than later, for planning purposes because that’s a significant amount of money and we have no magical way of making that money appear,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
“This isn’t unique to the W-H School District,” said School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes, a Hanson resident, who attended the Selectmen’s meeting. “This is popping up with Regional Agreements across the state. As you can see, every attorney has a different opinion on it, but it looks like it’s going to fall over on the statutory method.”
He said he expects it to be challenged legally.
In theory, Szymaniak said the agreement could be voided at town meeting and changed to the alternative method, but that the absence of any contract or an expressly worded change, it would default to the statutory method.
The water/sewer bill, discovered by Whitman’s new water superintendent in February, would be split 60-40 without DESE’s involvement.
Since the high school was built in 2004, incorrect bills from the Whitman DPW — said to be caused by human error — have left the School District with not only a $300,000 bill, but no accurate idea of the actual water cost for future budgets.
“That’s a heck of an error,” said FitzGerald-Kemmett.
“A heck of an error and it says human error on the bill,” Szymaniak said. “I have kind of kicked that can down [the road] because of the bigger issue right now.”
The district’s legal counsel is reviewing the situation, but current case law only covers a case of going back about seven years to rectify bills caused by human error.