In Hanson, the school budget vote came with no questions or comments from Town Meeting, while in Whitman, voters approved the town’s $16,104,903 assessment to the regional school district unanimously. Whitman voters also voted to approve a marijuana facilities bylaw and to approve playground equipment at Duval and Conley schools, among 50 warrants before the annual Town Meeting.
Resident John Galvin, who with fellow resident Sean Kain, has been working with the School Committee’s budget subcommittee on a new funding formula for non-mandated busing costs, among other things, took the opportunity to sound a caution about the overall fiscal health of the school district.
“The services covered in this budget are services that are needed,” he said. “They are things that our students should be having and that our teachers should all have. … The problem that I have is the way that it’s getting paid for.”
He credited the strategic planning points the town has followed from the Madden Report — recommended to the town three years ago by consultant John Madden.
One of those recommendations was that the school’s increases equal no more than 5 percent of what the town is assessed, he said.
“Technically, this budget does that, but what we don’t see in this budget are all the items that are being funded outside of the budget,” Galvin said. Grants, federal funds and state funding makes up the rest. Several positions are also being funded by one-time American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.
“The problem is that, next year, that money is gone,” he said, noting that the district is already forecasting it will start next budget cycle with a $600,000 deficit. “I’m not asking you not to vote for this, I just wanted it to be known and on record.”
“At some time it’s going to come to a head,” said budget subcommittee member Chris George, adding that good planning has likely staved that off for now.
He also ticked off the things the schools lack including full-time librarians, adequate computers and tech education and foreign languages in middle school. It is also one of the last districts to offer full-day kindergarten.
The article providing non-mandated school busing for Whitman students was also approved unanimously.
The three school playground articles totaling about $500,000, raised a question from Select Board member Dan Salvucci as to why the cost is so high.
“I know the playgrounds are around 20 years old,” he said asking how old the Whitman Park playground is. DPW Parks and Highways Superintendent Bruce Martin said it is about the same vintage.
“Over the years, as something breaks, are the schools repairing what’s breaking?” Salvucci asked. “If it’s yes, then why do we need three new ones when we don’t need a new one in the park? We repair on a regular basis.”
School Committee member Fred Small said the playgrounds are repaired, but there are different materials in question. Small is chairman of the committee’s facilities subcommittee.
“The wrought iron that’s underneath out playground that’s in need of replacement is rotting away,” he said. “It makes it a simple choice — it’s no good.”
He said the playgrounds are regularly inspected because we want to make sure they are safe for the children.
“These aren’t safe any longer,” he said. “They’re not safe, they need to be replaced.”
Finance Committee member Rosemary Connolly asked Martin how much the DPW has spent over the past 20 years to maintain the park playground by comparison to how much is being asked to replace the schools’ equipment. Martin said it would be hard to put a number on it off the cuff.
Resident Thomas Evans, who was a school principal for 20 years in Whitman, said that every month he inspected playground equipment, along with the rest of his school building.
“If you think for a minute that the people you put in charge of your children are going to let them go on unsafe equipment, you’re mistaken,” he said. “The evaluation that has been done by the subcommittee … is very, very thorough.”
He said the Duval footprint is small and without a playground for children to vent their energy, “it would be chaos,” adding that equitable and safe places equipment for children to play on are a right.
Parent Heather Clough of Beaulah Street also noted that none of the elementary school playgrounds are accessible to students who use a wheelchair or who have other mobility issues.
“These playgrounds will allow them to play with their typical peers, which is so important,” she said.
The Conley playground articles passed unanimously. Marshall Ottina of Lazel Street, who is president of the Duval PTO, proposed an amendment to appropriate $235,000 from Article 11 of the 2017 special Town Meeting (Duval School Roof) and $226,318 from free cash in order to fully fund the new playground project there. The article had proposed an appropriation of $235,000 from Article 11 of the 2017 special Town Meeting (Duval School Roof) and $165,000 from free cash.
The new total represents what Ottina termed a “significant savings” from the $500,000 estimate made by Playground Inspections of New England after an October 2021 inspection. That inspection had noted several hazards including hazards that listed “potential loss of life and permanent injury” as risks to children using it.
Town Counsel ruled that the amendment exceeded the scope of the warrant, because it excceds the dollar figure.
Small said the DPW will be able to do the excavation on the project — listed out at $60,000 — which covers the difference in dollar amount between the article wording an Ottina’s amendment. The article was unanimously approved.
On the cannabis front, Article 41, a proposed marijuana bylaw to allow up to a maximum of five marijuana establishments — either medical or recreational — in town, no more than three of which can be retail facilities was approved by a vote of 107-44. An article calling for a 3-percent excise tax on marijuana and related products was also approved.
These facilities would only be allowed in the highway business district [most of the area on both sides of Route 18 and a small section of Route 27 centered along Caliper Road] or in the industrial area [only above South Avenue between Hobart and the MBTA tracks].
Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman outlined the rigorous process potential businesses must follow for approval and noted the potential revenue from such facilities could help the town.
“Recreational marijuana establishments have opened in several municipalities in the state,” he said of the years since the Massachusetts voters approved legalizing marijuana. There are now 91, each on track to generate more than $400,000 in excise tax revenue as well as community host agreement fees.
“The perceived morality of marijuana use, that’s been decided by the voters,” Heineman said. “In an attempt to moderate the effect of residential property tax increases, this is a real revenue option and it’s something the bylaw study committee thought made sense to bring back to the town.”
Residents opposed cited the close proximity of shops in surrounding towns, traffic increases, stress on public safety, the ability of younger children to access marijuana from older siblings, potential vandalism in the park and that there is no need for it because of other available revenue sources.
Select Board member Brian Bezanson, also a member of the Bylaw Study Committee said he had “not been thrilled with the idea at first.” But he came to see a need for it and voted to bring it to voters because it is their decision.
“In this town, you’re voting to put that near somebody’s home,” resident Kevin Lynam said of the town’s dense population over a small area.
Clough said her sister works in the industry at a full-time job with an incredible benefits package, which is difficult thing to find in town. Some speakers, in agreement with Clough, also cited the purity of product and security of buildings — including one who is a pharmacist.
“The town lines are not what’s keeping it in and out of the town, we’re just keeping the business revenue from coming here,” Select Board member Justin Evans said.