A committee reviewing the regional school agreement has agreed, in principle, that a statutory assessment to the towns is the likely result of its work, has begun the task of negotiating a compromise path by which to get there.
The W-H Regional Agreement Amendment Committee, a subcommittee of the W-H School Committee, met remotely for it’s first session via Zoom Meeting Wednesday, April 15.
School Committee Vice Chairman Christopher Scriven, of Whitman was elected as chairman, as subcommittees are generally chaired by a member of the School Committee.
Scriven opened the meeting by seeking for suggestions within the charge of amending the regional agreement that could help resolve the current impasse on the school budget.
“If we look at the exiting regional agreement, the language around the apportionment of operating costs … presently spells out the agreement methodology that I think everyone on this call is fully ware of,” said Hanson School Committee member Christopher Howard.
He suggested a phased approach of specific language within the agreement to create a framework that would enable the two communities to move past this year after focus only on that issue until the budget is settled.
“Then, after the budget cycle, or concurrently, we work toward fully working through the agreement itself,” he said.
Howard said just tweaking the last revision is not enough, but that the new committee must look at too many issues to re-examine them all at once.
“What I would propose is a phased approach,” he said.
Whitman Finance Committee Chairman Richard Anderson, also a member of the RAAC, said he was unable to adequately convey his disgust at the School Committee’s inability to agree on a budget yet. He reminded the panel that the Whitman FinCom has stated publicly before that it will not support any assessment calculated by any formula other than the statutory method.
“I’ve been tasked further by the full committee to publically state that this Finance Committee will not recommend any phased implementation or any other financial consideration that causes us to pay Hanson’s bills,” Anderson said. “I would say I am opposed to any recommendation for changes to the regional agreement that would effect that type of a change.”
Hanson Citizen At-Large member of the committee Bruce Young said it was his impression that, in order to be on the panel, that he should be willing to compromise to help reach an agreement.
He agreed to keep an open mind on the issue.
“If you take a hard-ball approach and say, basically, this is going to be statutory or nothing, or basically this is going to be a percentage of pupils or nothing, then … there would be no way in the world that I would want to be on that committee,” Young said. “I’m looking for a fair compromise.”
He noted that Hanson would like to continue to operate the assessment split the same way as has been done for the past 60 years, and he recognized why Whitman would favor the statutory method, which benefits Whitman by about $1.5 million. Young agreed with Howard that an average of the two methods — which puts the towns at only $500,000 to $600,000 apart — is a better place to start.
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, town’s total earned 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.
Hanson Selectmen Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett said that, while she can appreciate where Anderson is coming from, he is one member of the RAAC.
“If the majority of the committee is willing to work on some type of compromise … we’ve got to start someplace,” she said. “Without compromise, I don’t even see why we’re meeting.”
Whitman Citizen At-Large member Christopher George said any compromise must be carefully drafted, assuming a compromise is possible.
George presented the argument that a statutory assessment was the likely end result, and that the work of a compromise would involve how the towns arrive at that point. Howard, FitzGerald-Kemmett and Young all agreed that the argument had merit.
Local assessments are not permitted to go down, he noted.
“We should outline the goals of this committee before we get too far into this conversation,” said Whitman Selectman Justin Evans, also a member of the RAAC. “Even if we were able to send something to DESE tomorrow, they’ve got a lot going on right now. They’re probably not going to be able to approve anything for the next two months.”
He cautioned that any compromise agreement reached for this budget cycle would have to fall under the current regional agreement and Chapter 70 rules.
“To be honest, my objective was to get past our [budget] impasse, and however we need to do that legally,” Scriven said. “We can meet as often as we need to.”
After the subcommittee reaches an agreement, it must be approved by the full School Committee and sent to DESE for approval and ratification by the towns. Anderson likened it to an “exercise in futility,” as he did not think it likely that either town would accept any type of compromise that includes its town departments supplementing their budgets with budgets of a member town.
If an average for compromise were to be used, he advocated going back over the past six years that Whitman has overpaid — a figure he put at closer to $4.2 million — as a starting point.
“In my estimation, the compromise has already taken place and [Whitman is] still on the losing side,” Anderson said.
Howard argued both towns have benefitted financially from the regional agreement.
Young asked for an explanation of “retroactive overpay” and stressed that if someone actually believed in it, the committee was not going to get anywhere.
Anderson said that was not the term he used, but that he could provide documentation to the committee on the amount Whitman overpaid in assessments after the state shifted to the statutory agreement.
Scriven stressed the benefits of the region above financial consideration and that he hoped the committee would keep that in mind. Anderson agreed, but noted Whitman also faces the financial challenges of a new or renovated middle school and a DPW facility where conditions could accurately be described as hazardous — in the coming years.
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said the committee’s charge is also to review the regional agreement in its entirety, but the first task if getting out a school budget that the towns can vote on in June.