HANSON — It’s too early for any move to appoint a committee to consider either de-regionalization of the schools in any manner or a Proposition 2 ½ override, but the Board of Selectmen opened the door to both possibilities at its Tuesday, Jan. 28 meeting.
“I put those on the agenda because I’ve been getting some feedback and I thought it was important to be responsive and to talk about it as a committee,” said Selectmen Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked about the viability of de-regionalizing.”
She said that regardless what form of de-regionalizing Hanson might look into — from a K-8 system to a complete K-12 break away — it would not immediately solve the town’s fiscal or contractual problems this year.
“In addition, I ultimately don’t think that de-regionalization is going to be proven to be in the best interests of the town, given the buy-out costs and the fact that you’d have to set up a separate administration and overhead costs,” she said.
People are asking her about it, however.
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes is having the district’s Business Manager John Tuffy look into the costs involved in such a move and Town Administrator John Stanbrook and Town Accountant Todd Hassett would also review the figures.
“I think, in light of the fact that we haven’t gotten those numbers yet, it would be a little bit premature to form a committee,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said, suggesting that even discussing the formation of any de-regionalization committee be put off until March. “We also don’t know the budget numbers, so I don’t want to put the cart before the horse.”
Selectmen Kenny Mitchell said he felt it was “definitely premature” to form a de-regionalization committee, an opinion with which the other members of the board agreed.
“I’m still hopeful that this is going to work out,” Mitchell said. “I’m hopeful that Whitman is going to want to sit down and come to the table.”
Selectmen also indicated that an override committee was also premature.
“I’d like to see [school budget] numbers before we decide,” said Selectman Jim Hickey.
She reviewed the genesis of the regional agreement entered into in 1993, which spelled out a per-pupil methodology for apportioning the school assessment.
“This methodology has been used without fail every year since then,” she read from a statement, noting that changed in August when Hanson was told there might be another method “the statutory method, which uses a ‘wealth-based formula’ and takes into consideration the average household income and home value for determining the minimum contribution each town makes to the regional school district.”
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has determined the statutory method should have been taken into consideration every year since 2012 and that the School Committee should have been voting each year on the budget as well as the assessment method.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said Whitman has decided its residents have been paying more than they were required as a result of the statutory method not being used and have “drawn a line in the sand” and support only the statutory method.
“While I believe that the decent and ethical thing to do would have been to enter into good-faith negotiations with Hanson on a revised regional agreement, and work on a phased-in approach, those options are presently not on the table,” she said. “This is for this year. I’m not saying this is never going to happen.”
She also pointed to the balance of membership on the School Committee favoring Whitman based on student population, and the committee’s 6-4 vote in November — along community lines — favoring the statutory assessment method.
Town Counselor Kate Feodoroff has reminded Hanson Selectmen that the School Committee must have a seven-vote majority to pass a budget.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said there are a few options open to Hanson: negotiating a change to the current regional agreement; formation of a de-regionalization committee; or forming an override committee to acknowledge that ‘most likely this year, we may have to have an override.”
Another option is to obtain legal counsel for a second opinion or litigation.
Interim Town Administrator Meredith Marini, FitzGerald-Kemmett and Selectman Matt Dyer have been meeting with Whitman Town Administrator Frank Lynam and Selectmen Randy LaMattina and Justin Evans in an effort to find a path forward.
“We’ve decided that the only way to determine what is equitable is to get a breakdown of the cost to educate the children in each town,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “We simply do not have the facts.”
She stressed that the audit is not an attempt by the towns to cast doubt on the confidence level in the school district.
“We’ve got a fiduciary responsibility and we cannot make decisions without being armed with the facts,” she said.
The board also discussed the status of that operational and forensic school audit.
Stanbrook said he has been working with Lynam to set up the audit and reviewing the cost of, and qualifications they are seeking in, an auditor.
The WHRSD fiscal 2021 budget release will take place at the School Committee’s Wednesday, Feb. 5 meeting. Selectmen are posting the meeting as a public session of the board “in case we all show up and decide to deliberate the heck out of things,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
That budget could determine the need for an override committee, she said.