The School Committee has voted to form a 24-person committee to renegotiate the school assessment method within the regional agreement. The panel can’t convene, however until after Hanson’s Oct. 7 special Town Meeting, which will address a new vote on the regional agreement.
The School Committee’s vote came at the conclusion of a public hearing on the issue at the Wednesday, Sept. 18 School Committee meeting. Two selectmen, two finance committee members, two citizens and three School Committee members from each town, along with town administrators as well as representatives from the Mass. Association of Regional Schools (MARS) and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) as non-voting members will make up the new committee.
Citizens interested in serving should contact the Superintendent’s office at 781-618-7000.
“Let’s sit down, sit around a table and work it out,” said member Fred Small, who suggested the formation of the committee. “Let’s work together and find a fair way to move forward.”
Small said his hope is that school administration would, in a “very short period of time” put together a budget showing the increase projections for the next five years, as well as educational priorities.
“Regardless of this situation, we still need to move forward,” Small said. “We’ve got to regain what we lost last year and then step forward from there.”
Former Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner and School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes, had noted before Gilbert-Whitner’s retirement, that the regional agreement was antiquated, Hayes said.
“It had schools that were not in the district any longer, such as [Whitman’s] Park Avenue School, which had been closed,” he said. “It did not reference the Hanson Middle School. We thought maybe it was time to make the regional agreement into the 2019 [version]. … It was not intentionally started to change any agreements or change any formulas — it was an update.”
A committee worked on the current agreement, which was approved by the School Committee in June 2018, Hanson voters in 2018 and passed over at Whitman Town Meeting this past May.
“Over the past two months, this has been [occupying] the central administration admin team about what the regional agreement is from 1991, what the amendments in 2018 did and something [Assistant Superintendent George Ferro] and I became aware of — that there are two methods of assessing communities via a regional agreement,” Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak explained. “There was no malice and there were no illegalities, as far as the assessment method made from the start through [fiscal] 2020.”
He said the agreement is legal and binding.
Based on the statutory assessment method state education officials implied should be used, Szymaniak said, Hanson’s fiscal 2020 assessment would have been $10,718,657 — or $1,047,682 more than the $9,670,975 it was assessed under the alternative method currently used. Whitman would have been assessed $13,350,469 under the statutory formula compared to the $14,398,151 as had been assessed.
“We don’t have an amended agreement, according to our attorney, according to DESE,” Szymaniak said.
Hanson Selectmen have voted to place an article rescinding its approval of the regional agreement on the Oct. 7 Town Meeting warrant as officials seek a solution to the issue.
“There’s a lot of emotion in the communities right now, and I’m asking for a reason, I’m asking — for our kids — because what I’m afraid of is not having a budget for our students in July of 2020 and being level-funding,” he said. “You’re going to see people wanting drastic cuts and de-regionalizing and so-forth. … I’m hoping we can have a calm, educationally based conversation moving us forward.”
Up until the fiscal 2020 budget under which the district is currently operating, the district has been using the alternative — or agreement — method. DESE is already in the process of changing that wording from “alternative” to “agreement.”
“We’re looking into who knew, who should have known, or who should have advised, members of the regional school district amendment committee or the School Committee, past and present, of these methods of assessment,” Szymaniak said. He added that past and present School Committee members have told him they were never able to make a decision about a choice between a statutory or alternative assessment method because they were not aware of the options.
He said he does not believe Selectmen or Finance Committee members in either town were made aware of the methods.
“I hold [the Mass. Association of Regional Schools] MARS a little accountable,” Szymaniak said, noting that in minutes he has read from the Regional Agreement Committee, MARS was never distinct in describing the two methods.
“It is implied in the new Regional Agreement, the one passed by Hanson in November 2018, and passed by the School Committee in June 2018 and passed over in May 2019 in Whitman, that the district is going to use the statutory method,” he said.
The statutory method takes into account a town’s minimum per pupil expenditure designated by DESE — the minimum local contribution — which fluctuates based on inflation, wage adjustment, income, property values and municipal revenue growth. Anything in a budget over the minimum local contribution goes to the regional agreement, based on pupil population, for any other operating expense.
There is no requirement for unanimous agreement by both communities to use the statutory method.
The agreement/alternative method uses strict per-pupil representation to assess the communities, the method currently used by the district. Both communities have to pass the assessment methodology prior to the budget distribution or at town meeting in order to use this method. If one town does not vote the budget forward and the other does, it does not constitute unanimous agreement for the method to be used.
The budget then goes back to the School Committee, which can opt to hold a district-wide meeting — also known as a super-town meeting — to vote on the statutory method as the only option open to the district by DESE regulations, according to Szymaniak.
If there is no budget in place by July 1, Szymaniak must inform the commissioner of education, who will place the district on a 1/12 budget based on level-funding to the previous year.