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.
Before the votes, Finance Committee Chairman Richard Anderson addressed the meeting on its work and focus throughout the past year as well as a perspective on how it arrived at its budget recommendations. He also credited Town Moderator Michael Seele for appointing a more diverse Finance Committee than any previous board.
Town Administrator Frank Lynam requested the assessment Article 7 be considered before Article 2 because of the impact it could have on the school budget line item.
When the meeting granted the change of order, Lynam went on to review the assessment issue.
“We became aware recently — in the last two years — that a change was made to the assessment process by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE),” Lynam said, noting that the change credits each town for its efforts in funding schools. “The Chapter 70 funding is different per pupil in virtually every town.”
Differences stem from the formula’s consideration of the tax burden for each town, ability to raise money and need, Lynam explained.
“Once the towns of Whitman and Hanson became aware of this the towns began discussions both with the towns and the School Committee because the preferred method for assessing each town is referred to as the statutory method,” he said. “Over the last several years, it has become evident that we have been paying more than our fair share.”
The School Committee proposed a budget assessment for this year that would take the increase to Hanson and divide it in half as a way to move forward. The assessment will then become purely statutory as of July 1, 2021.
“That’s a moving target,” Lynam said. “From year to year it moves based on the relative wealth of each community.”
Without approval of the article, he said in recommending approval both the School district and town budgets would be at a standstill.
Finance Committee Chairman Richard Anderson said his committee voted 8-1 against recommending the school budget because of the assessment formula.
“The very basic principal of what a Finance Committee’s responsibility to a community,” Anderson said, calling arguments to the contrary emotional appeals that ignore the facts.
Both Article 7 and the School line item on the Article 2 budget needed to be passed to approve the school budget.
FinCom member Rosemary Connolly said that financially it is not a sound choice, but that this is a “very different financial year” and this is a big consequence to fall on children.
Beth Stafford, a former Whitman Middle School teacher and union representative, said she usually supports the Finance Committee, but urged passage of the school budget.
“This time I respectfully disagree with them,” she said. “When we’re talking about the budget, it’s Whitman-Hanson and we’re supposed to be working together.”
She said the compromise is intended to prepare Hanson for what they’re going to need to do in the future and that passing the assessment compromise is vital to help the district move on.
School Committee member Fred Small suggested they “forget for a moment” about the 50-50 split and talk about education and its cost as well as what is at risk.
“Every single child that goes to Whitman-Hanson [schools] is at risk of not getting the proper education,” he said, noting that Hanson needs Whitman’s help this year.
He and Stafford both noted COVID-19 would present problems for the budget as well as the effect the lack of a budget would have on property values.
Resident George Coffey asked if other town departments would have to be cut if the school budget was passed. Lynam said the fiscal 2021 budget was balanced on the assumption that the 50-50 split would be approved.
“This isn’t something that’s just a slam-dunk,” Lynam said. “It’s maintaining a relationship that educates our children for years to come.”
The district receives aid in the amount of $4.6 million in state funds above and beyond what it is entitled to receive to hold the district harmless as it moves from year to year with Chapter 70 funding, Lynam said.
When we stand alone as communities, the incentive aid is gone,” he said. “I believe if we approve this article, if we approve the budget, all debate is over — next year, it’s very simple, it is statutory. … Come on, folks, these are our kids.”
Resident Cindy Landeville said she felt Whitman has been duped and wanted to know if Whitman’s budget dollars would benefit students “coming over the border from Hanson.”
Lynam said that is a disingenouous argument. The tax increase on a $300,000 home is about $54 for one year before it rolls back when the assessment formula goes to statutory.
“I would gladly write that check to settle this whole thing,” he said.
School Committee member Dan Cullity said it wasn’t a plot by Hanson or a financial penalty for Whitman.
Chris George, of the Budget Override Review Committee said the Finance Committee and Selectmen each did the right thing. But a no vote decimates the school budget.
“We need to move this forward,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do. … We can’t afford not to do this.”
He said it is a great compromise in view of the fact that finance committees in both towns have voted against recommending.
Selectman Randy LaMattina said he has lived the assessment formula for more than a year.
“The people of Hanson are not the enemy,” he said. “If you know this situation, they are not our enemy. They unknowingly benefitted from a very flawed process.”
He called School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes out, challenging him to fight hard for passage of the school budget when Hanson met Wednesday night.