The School Committee on Wednesday, Nov. 13, voted 8 to 1, with member Fred Small dissenting, to appoint a member from each town — Vice Chairman Christopher Scriven from Whitman and Chair Bob Hayes from Hanson — to a smaller Regional Agreement Amendment Committee, which began meeting Tuesday, Nov. 12. School Committee member Rob O’Brien Jr., was absent.
Whitman Selectmen Randy LaMattina said he and Selectman Justin Evans met with Hanson counterparts Selectmen Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett and Selectman Matt Dyer — along with town administrators Frank Lynam and Meredith Marini — met in a “very informal” manner Nov. 12 to begin discussing an effort to find a way forward.
“I would describe the dialog as quality and respectful,” LaMattina said. “I would not say we came to a conclusion, but I would say we were very cognizant of each others’ concerns. The door is open.”
“I can’t promise anything,” FitzGerald-Kemmett agreed. “We don’t know what’s going to happen … ultimately it’s the taxpayers who decide.”
LaMattina said he would like to see the School Committee involved in the process, but noted that, at the end of the day, it is the selectmen who will be going to the taxpayers for “the check that we need to have cut.”
While he said Whitman is firm on the position that the statutory method is the most fair and equitable way to ensure state aid is going where it is intended.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said the meeting Tuesday was a good one and “We understand where Whitman’s coming at.”
She said both boards of selectmen are trying to do what is in the best interests of their residents.
“In the end, I think we’re cognizant that, while we’re trying to do what’s best for the citizens in our respective towns, we don’t want to see the schools harmed in the process,” she said.
She did, however, ask the School Committee for transparency and clarity, specifically on the current operating cost numbers that Marini has asked the district to provide in an effort to determine a path forward. LaMattina said that, while Whitman is still committed to the statutory assessment formula, the town may need to make concessions if Hanson is to be eased into the scenario, which can only be achieved if the next budget year’s figures are available.
“We need a budget,” he said.
“It would be bananas for us to try to figure out any kind of an agreement if we don’t have those numbers,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said of the information Hanson wants. “It’s literally like working in the dark.”
The two towns are still at odds over the assessment formula to be used by the district.
“It’s all going to come down to timing,” Hayes said.
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.
“The agreement pretty much only needs a couple of tweaks here and there, but they’re big tweaks,” said School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes in beginning the discussion. He asked for thoughts on how the Regional Agreement Committee could move ahead with fewer people, but the discussion quickly veered back to a debate on the merits of a statutory vs. agreement/alternative method of determining assessments to the towns.
“If that’s what we’re forming a committee to do, I don’t know that it’s the School Committee’s charge … you’re getting too many people in a room and too many chefs trying to make a stew,” said School Committee member Fred Small. “That should be between the two towns.”
He advocated the statutory formula is the fair way to go, but said if selectmen want to work together in the spirit of community to see if there is some give and take on the issue, a month’s delay to see if they could come to a solution might be in order before the School Committee formed a committee.
School Committee member Christopher Howard agreed the selectmen needed to meet to figure it out, but member Dawn Byers said the School Committee should have a voice in that process.
School Committee member Dan Cullity, however, said enough time has been wasted.
“We should have been doing this two months ago,” he said. “We can’t wait around any more, we’ve got to get this done.”
FitzGerald-Kemmett said she agreed with Small’s contention that the state will end up taking over.
“We know each side has sort of picked its weapons and worked out their position,” she said.
LaMattina said Whitman remains a strong supporter of the regional school district.
“We know Hanson has been a good partner,” he said. “We will try to work through it, but neither town is going to back into this. I think we need to see a budget.”
While Whitman is looking to what the schools future needs are, “We cannot formulate a plan with an unknown number,” LaMattina said. “I don’t know if we’re going to come to a great kumbaya agreement, I do think we can get there but I think we need to know where ultimately we need to be.”
Hanson wants to see the district’s current operating costs, FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
Small said there is a “lot of misinformation” on social media.
“There’s no such thing as a wealth-based method,” he said. “If we were two separate towns the monies that we’re talking about would be Whitman’s money just going to Whitman, because it’s part of Whitman’s Chapter 70 money.”
He said the statutory method was the only one available back in 1993, until an amendment in 1995-96 permitted an alternative method.
“When half of our money — $25 million — comes from the state, and they’re only increasing their revenue by half a percent, our town can only pay so much,” Small said.
One Hanson resident, who has worked in the school district in the past, said it sounded to her like the committee was trying to rush a decision. She said FitzGerald-Kemmett’s request for current budget numbers made sense to her.
“I understand Whitman is in a crisis, but is this the way to go?” she said, noting Hanson’s assessment could go up by $1 million.
School Committee member Christopher Howard advocated rushing into a dialog if not a decision.
“I think both towns are making very valid points,” Howard said. “My concern is, if we give some folks in one town some information, and some folks in the other town other information, I’m just very concerned about … folks selectively picking and choosing certain data points to make certain arguments,” he said. “There’s value in people coming together as a group.”
Whitman Town Administrator Frank Lynam said he understands the reason for FitzGerald-Kemmett’s request for a breakdown of costs by school building.
“We want to get deeper in the budget process,” he said. “We want to understand what the costs are individually and where they are coming from.”
He also said detailed information is needed for what is being sought for fiscal 2021.
Small and Whitman resident Chris George, meanwhile, became involved in a heated exchange with Hanson resident Bruce Young about the assessment formulas.
“Since 1993, when educational reform was passed, and since the state has been giving out Chapter 70 aid differently than they did in 1991, when our agreement was struck, aid to one town — in some years Hanson and in some years Whitman — has been reallocated from one town to another,” said George. “That’s what not following the statutory method does. Since 2015, that’s close to $4 million from the town of Whitman.”
When the region received state aid, Young countered, it is not allocated to the towns or specific students in the towns, it is allocated to every student in the district.
“This is a region, not two towns within a region,” he said.
Small said the state has different minimum contribution formulas for the two towns because they receive different Chapter 70 aid funds.
“When you get up there and say it doesn’t exist, you are telling a falsehood,” Small said. “I’m calling you out on it.”
School Committee member Steven Bois had heard enough at that point.
“You make me think I want to start a night class here,” said Bois, a longtime school volunteer and former Whitman Finance Committee member. “There has to be a point — and this is coming from a Republican — you have to have the ability to pay. I volunteered at both schools and, never said this anywhere publically, but I’ve seen differences between Whitman kids and Hanson kids and I know where the needs really are.”
He said he has listened to the debate without comment for three meetings, and had had enough.
“Mr. Young, I don’t think you’ve been on our side at all,” Bois said. “I know I got an email from your wife when I first won election, ‘Oh, a Republican got in, thank goodness.’ No, that ain’t it, it’s still all of us.”