HANSON – The Select Board on Tuesday, June 14 voted to support exploratory conversations with Silver Lake about what a possible regional agreement with that district might cost and look like.
But any such conversation is not likely to happen anytime soon, as the town is expecting to have a cost estimate on de-regionalizing by this week.
“There’s two paths,” Select Board Chair Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett said – sticking with the de-regionalization process and deciding on negotiating with Silver Lake later, if at all – or to vote as a board to expand the role of the De-regionalization Committee to include exploration of a possible joining of the Silver Lake region.
Silver Lake School Committee Chair Paula Hatch has recently invited the Hanson Select Board to have more substantive conversations about the possibility of Hanson joining the Silver Lake School District.
Hanson Select Board member Jim Hickey initially met with Hatch to discuss that possibility, FitzGerald-Kemmett said emphasizing that, without the final result of the TMS study on the potential cost of de-regionalizing with Whitman-Hanson, the town has no real idea what they might be doing in the future.
Hickey said his meeting took place the day before a past Hanson Select Board meeting, so he had hoped to present it to the board the next night under the provision for presenting last-minute information. Hickey said, he thought it was too important to bring up at 9:30 at night — during a three-hour meting — so he waited until the following week.
But, it still did not make it on that agenda.
“TMS has still not given us an answer yet,” Hickey said as his reason for the discussion with Hatch.
Town Administrator Lisa Green said she had reached out to TMS and was told the consulting firm’s estimate should arrive either June 20 or 21. FitzGerald-Kemmett agreed with Hickey that waiting for the De-regionalization Feasibility Committee to review it before the Select Board add it to a meeting agenda is the best idea.
Regardless of what we do, who we talk to, where we go if we stay,” Hickey said, there is a need to explore the four-year de-regionalization process, adding that he believes some of the W-H School Committee members have “lost their way.”
“I was just looking for other options for the town … and the students to be taught, but not being gouged every year by Whitman,” Hickey said. “My phone conversation with Paula was to give the town of Hanson another option.”
Comparing Silver Lake’s cost estimate to the one the town gets from TMS, as well as calculating the votes on W-H’s School Committee could then be discussed, according to Hickey.
“Why would a de-regionalization committee look into regionalizing?” asked Select Board member Ann Rein. “To me, that makes no sense at all. … And I have serious issues with this anyway, because of the way that formula was changed.”
She argued that the regional agreement itself needs to be revisited in “an honest and fair way, and not because we’re the ‘richer town.’ That’s infuriating. We’re not the richer town.”
Hickey responded that the de-regionalizion committee had nothing to do with any discussions with Silver Lake.
“This was me, on my own, thinking outside the box, and I did not keep this information to myself,” he said, noting that while he did not keep his title a secret, he was talking to Silver Lake as a private citizen.
Noting that, impropriety could be assumed even where there was none on Hickey’s part, FitzGerald-Kemmett asked Select Board member Joe Weeks if he would be willing to work with Hickey as an ad hoc committee.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said that, in her recent conversation new Whitman Select Board Chair Randy LaMattina, she expressed Hanson’s intention to revisit the regional agreement, and he said Whitman, too, had an interest in revisiting it.
“Does it make sense for us to be sitting down with the Silver Lake regional School Committee?” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “I go back and forth on it.”
While the board could hold that conversation with the Silver Lake board, there are concerns over it wasting everyone’s time without negotiating with Silver Lake.
“For me, it comes down to there’s never anything wrong with having a conversation,” said Select Board member Joe Weeks, noting his only concern is with Silver Lake’s status, compared with W-H, as a town.
Rein, who said she de-regionalizing does not mean finding another region to join, also stressed she has “severe reservations” about dissolving W-H, given the money and time invested in the school system.
“Until we know if we’re going to de-regionalize, why even waste our time, or their time, talking about joining them?” FitzGerald-Kemmett said of any talks with Silver Lake. “It’s my fervent hope that we don’t de-regionalize, but that we find a way to improve the relationship and effectuate something more positive for Hanson.”
Weeks said he’s fine with conversation, but if you formalize it with two people, it may be viewed as a formal negotiating.
“Whoever gives us the best deal, wins,” Weeks said, noting his priorities are making sure his kids are educated, his grandparents are not priced out of time and if people can afford to move to and live in town.
“Is [that] going to strengthen our position?” Weeks said, admitting he does not have an answer to that question.
Regardless, it is a conversation he said he is willing to take.
FitzGerald-Kemmett also asked why the state always refers to Hanson as the wealthier town in formulating funding regulations.
“I look around and that’s not what it feels like to me, but I guess I’m not the state,” she said about the formula for the statutory calculation of regional school costs.
FitzGerald-Kemmett also said she had spoken with W-H School Committee Chair Christopher Howard the previous week, reiterating what the prior board had said about communication between the two boards, as well.
“Inasmuch as we have to advocate for a budget and understand the budget, we need to have a more transparent, open dialog on an ongoing basis,” she said. “I appreciate and support the work that the School Committee does, but we are not elected to be School Committee members.”
Select Boards should not have to expect that the only way to discover information about the budget process is by attending School Committee meetings, and said Howard agreed.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said she also spoke about the situation with LaMattina, who also agrees to try having Howard and Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak come before the select boards of each town as early as possible in the budget process in order to provide a better and deeper understanding of the numbers there, what’s happening with the school budget and what’s being budgeted for.
“It’s a huge part of our budget and we just don’t have the transparency that we need,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
“A vast majority of people don’t learn what some of these subcommittees are doing until an article is placed on Town Meeting warrant,” Weeks said. Then an issue, such as a land transfer or a new project being funded is before the town.
Earlier budget discussions could get more information out to the public and result in more people attending.
In other business, FitzGerald-Kemmett suggested public office hours – a “Select Board’s Night Out,” of sorts – be held perhaps once per month, as one way to improve communication between the board and residents, seeking more ideas from the rest of the board.
She suggested the board could alternate who does it and discuss the days and times in which to hold them, as an experiment.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” she said.
Rein said both morning and evening hours should be considered to accommodate elder residents who don’t drive at night.
“That [morning session] could be by appointment, where one of us wouldn’t have to sit there, waiting for someone,” Hickey said.
Select Board members would be available in a meeting room to discuss issues residents want to bring to their attention. Hickey suggested that Tuesday nights when no meeting is held and Town Hall is open, they could use the table in the adjoining coffee/lunch room.
“I’d really like you guys to think about what kind of things could we do improve our communication to the public, about things like Town Meeting –you get a vote, you should show up – election – you get a vote, you should show up,” she said.
Board and commission vacancies, the role of various boards and even “fun stuff” like town events need to be easier for residents to find out about.
“As the leaders of the town, we need to set precedence and try to be better at communicating,” she said.
That includes a policy requiring all boards and committees to post agendas in a timely manner on the town’s website (hanson-ma.gov), and be more consistent with posting the Select Board agendas while encouraging other departments with doing the same.
“Yes, I know they are setting the hearing notices to the abutters, and all the good stuff that they’re supposed to do,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “We’re doing the bare minimum and how’s that working for us?”
Rein, noting she is “pretty good with a computer,” said it is very difficult for residents to find information on the town’s website, to the agreement of other members of the board.
“I am not a web designer at all, but that website has got to be revamped and things have to be easy to find,” she said.
“We really have to do better at communicating with the public about a host of things,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said, noting that Rein and fellow new board member Ed Hear had mentioned the issue to her, recommending that email addresses for all department heads be listed on the site to ease resident frustration with the phone system and leaving voicemails. Select Board members’ emails are already listed.
While the town has an IT person, she noted the significant overhaul envisioned “could take a while.”
Hear said he would like to see more information presented to residents, especially on controversial issues, at Town Meetings.