HANSON — The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, Jan. 25 heard a presentation from consultants hired to conduct a De-Regionalization Feasibility Study during a joint meeting with the De-Regionalization Feasibility Study Committee.
Selectmen peppered the consultants with questions and comments.
“I think this was a great presentation, but I still find myself with so many questions,” said Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett. “I don’t feel I’m completely armed with the empirical data that I would need to make an educated decision about whether this is a cost-effective decision to make or not.”
She said they were “maybe halfway there” on the information needed to make an informed decision.
“I think we are all in consensus that we need more information before we can even think about which direction we want to head,” said Selectmen Chairman Matt Dyer.
Selectmen Joe Weeks and Jim Hickey had already asked a lengthy list of questions on points TMS consultants had reviewed in their presentation.
Weeks also said more local control was as much as a concern for Hanson residents as school budget costs.
“It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the data,” he said. “As a homeowner, as a taxpayer and as someone who has to take a vote on something, that’s hard to reverse. There’s still so many data points that I’m missing.”
Town Administrator Lisa Green noted that Selectmen had voted before she came on board to form a de-regionalization committee and have consultant firm TMSolutions Inc., out of Auburn study the potential and possible effects of such a move. They compiled and studied documents on assessments, revenue support, staffing, special education and other issues — and attended the meeting remotely to present their report.
The Jan. 25 presentation can be viewed on WHCA-TV’s YouTube channel as well as rebroadcast on its Hanson access channel.
Judy Houle, senior VP and chief education officer at TMS and Associate Consultant for Special Projects and Business Services Michael DeBarge presented the report. A 43-year educator, Houle has been a teacher, principal, curriculum director, superintendent and business manager for school districts. She said TMS has done three de-regionalization studies, including Hanson’s and two regionalization studies.
DeBarge holds a master’s degree in conflict studies from the London School of Economics where he studied how institutional design could be used in conflict resolution. He also provides general financial management services for K-12 schools.
“We were to provide information to the town of Hanson with regard to the question of should the town separate from the W-H Regional School District or remain with them,” Houle said.
The scope of the study was to inform Hanson officials of the educational, financial and administrative impacts. Legal implications and a potential timeline and processes for town officials’ consideration.
“For me, it’s what’s best for the kids,” Selectman Jim Hickey said. But he added that 30 percent of Hanson’s population is over age 60 and 45 percent is over 50.
“We either have people ready to go to a fixed income or already on a fixed income,” he said.
Houle responded that it was an important concern, but added that quality schools help property values to go up.
“Financial considerations have been driving a lot of this discussion, and the big questions before us are what do you save as a result of de-regionalization? What costs would be incurred as a result of that?” DeBarge said.
The three options TMS brought forth for the town to consider are to:
• fully separate for a PreK-12 district and a decision about the WHRHS faculty;
• PK-8 supervisory union and region for nine to 12 or
• maintain the status quo.
“I still find myself asking the question, ‘What would it cost to completely de-regionalize,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said noting that complete de-regionalization was not fully fleshed out. She cited legal costs and forensic accounting as two areas of concern.
“Both towns would have to vote to amend or dissolve the regional agreement,” Houle said, advising that be done by July 2023. She noted that the next steps right now would be to engage stakeholders in both towns to discuss the issue. She said the soonest any separation could be achieved, were that the decision would be 2025.
“We recommend you move slowly and methodically in this process and make sure stakeholders’ voices are heard,” Houle said. She noted that total cost would depend on the option Hanson chooses.
The commissioner of education must approve any long-range feasibility plan by Dec. 31 of the fiscal year any de-regionalization would be planned.
The first option raises issues over ownership of buildings or responsibility for building a new facility; the need for a separate administrative set up and a new school committee, the need for added staff and the loss of regional transportation reimbursement.
Option two presents some of the same considerations, but DeBarge said the impact would be lessened as special education programs would be easier absorbed and most central office services could be shared.
The third option’s main focus is collaboration in containing costs while maintaining a high level of educational programs.
The regional agreement, first entered into in 1956 established a grade nine to 12 region and was amended in 1992 to become a K-12 district. The assessment methodology was amended in 2020 to conform with the state’s preferred statutory method based on the rolling average of enrollment in the district, and was the impetus for the study.
Hanson owns the Indian Head Elementary and Hanson Middle schools, both of which Houle and DeBarge have toured. They noted HMS’ high-priority capital needs are roof and kitchen repairs and gymnasium egress. Outstanding high-priority capital needs at Indian Head are the playground and lead paint, which is currently encapsulated.
Hanson’s share of capital costs to the town’s schools is $710,650 and $1,643,703.12 for a total on $2,354,365.12. Hanson’s liability for regional capital costs is also calculated based on enrollment.
“Your regional agreement specifies that you are liable for any capital debt that has been incurred during the process and at the time of separation,” Houle said.
DeBarge said the financial impact of de-regionalization was investigated in concentrating on three specific areas — the foundation budget, transportation and human resources.
“From 2015 to 2021, Hanson experienced a total decline in foundation enrollment of nearly 14 percent,” DeBarge said. The decline in enrollment, however, does not translate to financial savings.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), determines the adequate spending level for a school district, based on enrollment inflation and the wage-adjustment factor, DeBarge said.
Hanson should also consider that, should de-regionalization be pursued, transportation reimbursement would disappear.
“While transportation expenses would decline, if you look at the percent of transportation funding that has been reimbursed, you see that this is not an inconsequential amount of money,” he said. If Hanson opted for partial separation, some of that reimbursement would be maintained, but it would be only at the high school level.
“The point is, transportation is a major factor to consider, and separation does not entail significant savings,” he said. De-regionalization would also increase the costs for staffing by about 4 to 5 percent, for cost of living, advancing steps and salary lane changes with additional education. Those figures do not include custodial costs. Administrative and instructional support costs must also be considered.