HANSON — Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding’s effect on the town’s assessment change was involved in a heated discussion about school assments at the Monday, Sept. 13 meeting of the Hanson Board of Selectmen.
Former Selectman Bruce Young challenged the way a $1.85 million override was voted at the annual Town Meeting this spring — $1.55 million for general government and about $305,000 for the school district whether the override passed or failed. He also questioned how the $304,885 was dropped from the Hanson assessment.
“You need to consider going back to Town Meeting and changing line 54 of Article 5 of Town Meeting to read $12,646,000,” Young said in urging support of his article requesting that change. “If you don’t do that, before Sept. 20, what you’re going to end up with is that $305,000 that everybody knows is never going back to the School District in fiscal ’22.”
Like Whitman resident John Galvin at the Sept. 15 School Committee meeting, Hanson Town Administrator Lisa Green noted that the committee voted to lower the assessment by the amount of the grant on April 14.
“That had been in the original budget all along, so it’s not like he added it to the budget, but what he did was say, OK, I’m no longer going to charge this to Whitman and Hanson, I’m going to pay for it out of our ESSER III funds,” Galvin said of his question about school interventionists funded by the Whitman assessment this week.
Green explained this Monday that, when the budget lines were called out at this year’s Town Meeting, Young held that several line items for question and explained his concern to voters and proposed a motion to lower the lines he questioned in an attempt to lower the budget. He also challenged the override in an effort to change the assessment. The Town Meeting voted to accept the line items anyway.
“You cannot go back and undo a Town Meeting vote unless you follow the right procedure,” Green said. “Mr. Young did not do that.”
The $305,000 may still be used by the schools for capital needs during FY ’22, Green said.
“The money is there for the schools if they need it,” Green said. “At the end of the year [the unused portion] goes back to the Dept. of Revenue and it’s certified as free cash.”
Young has challenged the Town Meeting vote with several state agencies, Green noted.
She said there has not been a single state agency, including senior managers for education and municipal associations alike, that has come to the district to say the budgeting process has been invalid.
“Believe me if the [attorney general’s office] catches an error on procedure or anything, they are the first to reach out to you,” Green told Seletmen, Thursday, Sept. 16. They then provide the procedures and steps to correct it.
“We have not done anything wrong,” she said, adding that the impact on taxpayers would be “pennies on a tax bill … but that’s beyond the point,” Green said emphasizing there is no wrongdoing involved.”
One Selectman saw Young’s point during the Town Meeting debate.
“I was a constituent at the time, and I had some issues with this and brought it up to a couple of people, but it’s all said and done at this point,” Selectman Joe Weeks said of his Town Meeting vote. “We were trying to save jobs, quite frankly, and were trying to fund schools. … But I definitely, as a concerned citizen brought up the same issue [as Young].”
“When I became aware after Town Meeting, that there was that discrepancy, we definitely reached out to town counsel,” Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “We did not take these accusations and allegations with a grain of salt. …This was a matter or timing of when the vote came down and the ballot had to be printed.”
She explained it was not the original intent to put the $305,000 into free cash. Selectmen Chairman Matt Dyer said the money might still be used for a schools capital need, if not, it would go to free cash.
FitzGerald-Kemmett suggested the whole board be involved in strategizing on how the matter would be handled.
“We all should have been made aware that there was a $305,000 difference and we all should have been part of a conversation about how that was going to be handled,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “I would hope we’ve learned from this.”
At a special Sept. 16 Selectmen’s meeting, she indicated an understanding of where the concern is coming from — “It doesn’t feel like that was really transparent,” she said. “But to question the credibility or the integrity of the process…”
But the problem really stemmed from poor timing.
The School Committee originally had an assessment of $12,251,003. On April 14, the committee learned that the district had received a grant for the school’s food services department, according to Green.
“At that committee meeting, they lowered the assessment by that amount,” she said. The annual Town Meeting was two weeks later.
An article submitted by Young to reduce the amount approved at the annual Town Meeting to $12,646,118 — which had been rejected at the Town Meeting — failed to attain a second.
“You made an appropriation to the schools,” Town Counsel Kate Feodoroff said. “I think the reality is it’s acceptable at this point.”
The assessment in question was to the schools and the town did not find out until it was too late to react.
“It’s not uncommon to overbudget,” she said.