Any attempt to recount the top stories of the past year seems to have its roots in five letters — COVIDThe COVID-19 pandemic took over in so many areas of daily life after mid-March that it’s sometimes difficult to recall a time it wasn’t a constant preoccupation.
But the year opened — and closed — with communities choosing new town administrators. In Hanson, Selectmen welcomed new Town Administrator John Stanbrook on board in January, replacing Michael McCue who had been removed by the board the previous summer.
“He comes to us with impeccable credentials and years of diverse municipal experience and skills, which we know will serve us in good stead,” then-Chairman of the board of Selectmen Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
Whitman ended the year by selecting Hanover Finance Director Lincoln Heineman — as Selectmen prioritized the town’s financial outlook — to serve as Whitman’s new town administrator.
Heineman and Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green were placed in nomination for the vote during discussion, prior to which Green excused herself from the Zoom meeting.
The board also voted to begin contract negotiations with Heineman.
Four finalists had been interviewed by Paradigm Consulting representative Bernard Lynch and the board during a lengthy session on Friday, Dec. 18, also conducted remotely.
Also interviewed were Millville Town Administrator Peter Caruso and Shirley Town Administrator Michael McGovern.
“To me, it was clear by the interview process and the paper résumés that, in my opinion, there was somebody who stood out to me,” Selectmen Randy LaMattina said of Heineman. “It was talking about fiscal policy, forecasting, models — where will we be in five and 10 years — and not only talking about these things, but having first-hand knowledge, actually participating in the development of these things, not just a seat at the table where you watched it happen.”
The towns were also busy from the start of 2020 dealing with the continuing debate over how towns should be assessed for the W-H Regional School District budget — an issue which preoccupied residents nearly as much as did COVID.
And there were presidential, state and local elections and a reckoning with systemic racism in the form of marches in both towns to protest the death of Gorge Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis, Minn., police officer, among other fatal encounters between Black Americans and police across the country.
Town halls, libraries, senior centers and any activities that could attract more than 25 people were canceled or rescheduled in light of a March state of standard procedure in Whitman and Hanson, until summer when Hanson returned to in-person meetings with masks and social distancing protocols in place. Whitman boards continued to meet remotely, however.
By late December, Gov. Baker had to reinstate controls on gatherings of 10 persons or more until Jan.10, 2021. Hanson Selectmen Chairman Kenny Mitchell, therefore suspended meetings until Jan. 12.
Schools turned to remote learning within days of Gov. Baker’s initial order, sending ChromeBooks home with students who needed them, as well as to-go meals for children on free and reduced lunch programs.
By the start of the 2020-21 school year, the district — as well as South Shore Tech — had developed hybrid plans in which pupils were rotated through school buildings and ridership was limited on school buses.
For those students, however, the lost extra-curricular activities and annual milestones such as a lost state final basketball game, proms and graduations, were what will be remembered.
The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association canceled the state finals as W-H was scheduled to play Taconic in the Division 2 state final last Saturday. It was the program’s first-ever state final berth. As a result of the cancellation, W-H and Taconic
were named co-state champions.
The last day of school became a drive-by affair as teacher and staff stood socially distanced outside schools as rising students were driven by to wave and receive tokens from teachers.
On June 27, SST seniors, received their diplomas on a touch-free basis during a drive-in ceremony at the Marshfield Fairgrounds, a precursor of some national political rallies in late summer and the fall.
W-H’s graduation was delayed until July 31, and, even then, some students’ exposure to coronavirus forced a change from a socially distanced in-person graduation to a drive-up ceremony.
One by one, members of the senior class and family members who could fit in a single vehicle drove up to the school’s front entrance. They picked up their diploma from a low table and approached the spirit rock where they posed for individual photos with Principal Dr. Christopher Jones, Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak and School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes.
But there was good to be found, even amid the COVID pandemic. Police drive-by birthday greetings for kids, notes of encouragement left in Whitman Park and literal signs of support for community food pantries helped buoy spirits.
On Sunday, April 19, a steady parade of vehicles stopped in front of the LaMattina house on Whitman’s River Birch Circle all morning. They stopped long enough for Randy LaMattina or his wife Michelle to load something in the back before driving away. Residents were taking delivery of 18X24 Whitman Strong lawn signs, designed by 14-year-old Claire LaMattina to benefit the Whitman Food Pantry. She raised more than $15,000 in the project.
Things were less harmonious on the town and school budget front. A project grappled with since the fall of 2019, drawn out even further by pandemic-induced delays in town election and town meeting schedules. Town meeting quorums were reduced and sessions were held outdoors — an arrangement that also had to work around limited time windows around darkness and mosquito activity.
In Hanson, a $800,000 Proposition 2 ½ override failed by a vote of 1,121 against to 712 in favor during the June town election. Opponents argued the School Committee did not have the necessary two-thirds vote to post the article in the first place.
Financial decisions by both towns and the school district, to trim where possible and, a compromise formula helped both towns pass budgets, including school spending at midsummer town meetings.
“The budget is built on the assumption that we meet in the middle, in a transition from the current [school] budget method … to the statutory method, which is what most communities in Massachusetts that are regional are using,” Whitman Town Administrator Frank Lynam said in July.
Whitman voters unanimously approved the assessment compromise for the school budget before moving on to the school budget during an outdoor Town Meeting in the blistering heat at WHRHS ball fields Monday, July 27. The $15,367,392 school assessment line item in the Article 2 budget was also approved unanimously. Hanson voters also approved the amendment to the Regional Agreement governing the assessment formula, two days later to fall into line with the vote taken by Whitman. They also approved the Selectmen’s recommended school budget 434-83 and the budget as a whole, based on the Selectmen’s recommended budget of $11,214,177 — at Town Moderator Sean Kealy’s motion — after the assessment article passed.