How did we get here?
Whitman and Hanson select boards met jointly with the WHRSD School Committee via virtual Zoom meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 15 to review the history of town assessments in support of the regional school district.
“After we discuss that and get clarity, the object is to make sure we have systems in place so that it doesn’t happen again,” Whitman Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski said of the mistakes made that caused division between the towns in recent months. “What happened was unfortunate and caused each of the towns to see each other with suspicion and that’s not how the towns have behaved in the past.”
Kowalksi said the object is also to ensure that the new Regional Agreement Committee continues with its work.
Whitman Selectman Randy LaMattina outlined a timeline of the issue, which he has researched.
“We got lost in the effect, and didn’t get a solid explanation of the cause, and that’s my goal this evening,” LaMattina said.
He said his timeline has been verified by emails, meeting videos and minutes, and public record beginning with the 1993 Education Reform Act, which put in place a statute regulating how assessments are calculated.
“This was never addressed in any Whitman-Hanson agreement up until this previous year [when it] was finally the first year we’ve handled it correctly,” LaMattina said. He noted the confusion stemmed from a feeling that the alternative — or per-pupil — method was an illegal one.
“That absolutely was not an illegal method,” he said. “But what we clearly did not do was follow the statute.”
The towns should have been made aware they were using an alternate method and been afforded the opportunity to vote on the method used.
LaMattina said he didn’t know why the discrepancy played out since 1993, but noted the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) provided some clarity in 2007 with and a memo affirming the correct process and their position in response to questions from some school districts.
“We don’t know who got that [memo],” he said.
An “erratic fact pattern in the filing of year-end reports” at WHRSD began in 2012.
Whitman resident Christopher George began to question the process in May 2016 through an email to former Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner. George, active at the time in the pro-override Save Our Schools group, had included a link to the 2007 DESE memo in his email. Both George and School Committee member Fred Small have both said there was a follow-up discussion between George and Gilbert-Whitner.
In 2017, Gilbert-Whitner reached out to School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes about the need to revise the “antiquated” regional agreement that referred to closed schools and other outdated information. The Regional Amendment Agreement Committee was then formed and worked on doing so from 2017-18.
“This was obviously where a lot of our answers can be found and a lot of very deep questions start to come from,” LaMattina said.
Representatives of the Mass. Association of Regional Schools (MARS) attended the committee’s first meeting Sept. 25, 2017 in which the assessment method was mentioned as a “significant issue,” and stated the district “currently uses the statutory method.” It was stressed that to use the alternative method that the district was, in fact, using “both towns would have to vote on it each and every year,” LaMattina noted.
On Aug. 14 LaMattina called MARS representative Malcolm Reid to ask why they assumed WHRSD was using the statutory method.
“We asked Christine (referring to former Business Manager Christine Suckow), and that’s what she said she used,” Reid replied, according to LaMattina. “She was using a formula, but the numbers were wrong,” Reid told him.
“There was obviously not a nefarious intention,” LaMattina said he determined from his conversations with Reid. “It appears that, at this time, we had somebody employed by the school district that didn’t have a full understanding of what she was using.”
MARS representative Stephen Hemman on Aug. 17 told LaMattina Suckow was using her own hybrid assessment method, which did not use the minimum local contribution. A fact Hemman found out in a meeting with Suckow and Gilbert-Whitner.
LaMattina said the error was never mentioned to new district administration, and it continued for two more budget cycles. Hemman and the MARS assistant director came to W-H in June 2019 to meet with Hayes and Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak “where an actual pen to paper was put to Christine’s numbers and it was fully discovered what she was doing wrong at that time,” according to LaMattina.
School Committee member David Forth stressed that, while both the former business manager and superintendent were named in the meeting, the problems surrounding the assessment issue were in place for years before them.
“To blame these two people is just a narrative that’s being pushed,” he said. “I think you could say they were part of the issue, but this goes further back.”
Through the summer of 2019 “quite a bit of infighting” between the towns had started to take place and the school district began an investigation on the former business manager. In 2016-18, year end reports had reflected the alternative method and were “very erratic” in previous years, LaMattina said.
He asked Hayes whether the schools, indeed had followed the statutory method all along.
“If the answer is no, what are we going to do as partners to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” LaMattina said.
“I think everyone is much more schooled on it now, than they were in the past,” Hayes said, noting the district has a new business manager who is taking a different approach. “It depends on the correct information of those statements.”
Kowalski said he was not certain that the purpose of the meeting was to ask questions like that and asked Szymaniak if LaMattina’s assessment met his understanding of the issue.
“What we really need to do is look forward more than look back, and have some reassurance that we have systems in place that that can’t happen again,” Kowalski said.
“The timeline that Mr. LaMattina has presented is the timeline that I’ve been able to track back,” Szymaniak said, who took the helm at WHRSD in July 2018. “When things come from DESE they’re addressed to superintendents and charter school leaders, so that they’re covered. Business managers might have been on this one, but it usually goes right to the superintendent’s office and at that point, it was Dr. John McEwan, who was the superintendent.”
Whitman’s passing over the Regional Agreement article in May 2018 is when questions arose for him.
Forth, who also researched a timeline, starting in 1978 when funding cases began to process toward regionalization. He stressed that the regional agreement was intended to be reviewed every five years. He said Kowalski, who was chairman of the school committee in 1993 should also have been aware of the assessment issue.
“I don’t understand why we waited until 2016-17 to update a regional agreement that should have been updated every five years since ’91,” Forth said.
School Committee member Dawn Byers said when she began researching the issue, she was cautioned that proceeding would “tear the two towns apart.”
“I was intimidated, people tried to silence me, and I was lied to and told that we were using the statutory method,” she said. “I knew these numbers were exactly why these two towns were having budget issues.”
She said there has been a generation of students in W-H who have suffered as a result.
Szymaniak agreed that, going forward, the agreement should be reviewed every five years and joint meetings with finance committees and selectmen should be used to increase transparency in budgeting.
Hanson Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett said she is questioning the checks and balances in this situation.
“To say that this is blowing my mind would be the understatement of the year,” she said. “We have got to make sure that people are held accountable.”
An open line of dialog should have been opened with town officials as soon as the problem was discovered.
Small advocated a clear action plan for the budget process and assessment going forward, including a complete audit.
How did we get here?