While there is still contention between some town officials in Whitman and Hanson over the school assessment funding formula, a meeting with representatives of the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was held this week to explain the history of the issue, differences in funding formulas and the worst-case scenario if the divide is not bridged.
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes stressed the unusual 5:30 p.m., Tuesday meeting time was designed to accommodate DESE representatives Christine Lynch and Michelle Griffin of DESE’s Office of Regional Governance, but that it was also intended to refute social media rumors about the issue, the only one on the agenda.
Members of both towns’ boards of selectmen, town administrators and finance committees attended the meeting, as well.
“There’s been some social media myths traveling around to do with the assessment that the town of Whitman is trying to balance their budget through the town of Hanson,” Hayes said. “That is totally, 100-percent untrue.”
He said Whitman is trying to develop a long-range plan for financial sustainability.
“This assessment issue came up through some other meetings, and it is coincidental,” Hayes said. “It is not one town pitting against the other. I want to make that very clear. … It is two towns — we are a regional school district. This committee’s charge is to advocate for children and get them the best education that we possibly can.”
Whitman Selectman Randy LaMattina said he wanted to head off any social media claims that his town was trying to force Hanson into something.
“I think, now that everyone is on the same playing field, we know what is going to transpire,” LaMattina said. “Now we know where to go.”
“We’ve been two great towns,” Hayes agreed. “Our kids are Whitman-Hanson. Our element is Whitman-Hanson. We’re red and black — we both bleed it, and we want to come to some agreement as a committee, as both boards of selectmen, as residents, as finance committees — we want to come to this agreement.”
Hanson Selectmen Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett thanked the School Committee for arranging for Lynch and Griffin to meet with the town officials.
“The Hanson Board of Selectmen stands ready to respond to whatever decision it is that you guys make,” she said. “I really hate to see it get to a point where we’re going to have to see the state take over.”
School Committee member Christopher Howard asked if the panel submitted language in the assessment provisions for a phased-in approach, would that work?
Lynch said it could be looked at, but was noncommittal at this point beyond saying it would be reviewed.
“What I see is the need to come together and to work toward a solution to get this done,” said School Committee member Christopher Scriven.
While Whitman Finance Chairman Richard Anderson and Selectmen Vice Chairman Dan Salvucci reminded the School Committee later in the meeting that their respective boards had unanimously voted to recognizes the statutory formula as the only acceptable budget method for Whitman.
Salvucci said that, no matter what formula is used, the schools will get their money, but town departments will pay the price.
“We are at our max,” he said. “We are $3,000 over the levy limit, we found that out today.”
Howard replied that Lynch had said at least five times that it is important for both towns to work together and that to come to an immediate conclusion without doing so would be premature.
“The bottom line for the Whitman Finance Committee may not be the same as for the Hanson Finance Committee or School Committee or the Whitman or Hanson boards of selectmen,” Anderson said. “Our responsibility is to recommend to Whitman Town Meeting what is in the best interests of the taxpayers of the community.”
He said the Education Reform Act’s intent was to recommend an assessment formula based on an aggregate, wealth-based methodology. While his board recognizes the challenges facing taxpayers in both towns and the importance of meeting all the stakeholders each year.
“We’re hoping the input [tonight] might sit for a while and maybe your recommendation might change,” Hayes said. He added that it was important to look at it from the perspective of the future of the school district, as the financial pendulum has swung back and forth to the benefit or detriment of both towns in the past.
Hayes, a Hanson resident, said Whitman did not vote on the agreement, opting to pass over it at Town Meeting, but not because of the assessment issue.
“They had an issue with language in pulling out of the district,” he said. “It had nothing to do with one town paying more than the other, because that was also another myth that was all over the internet.”
Lynch advised the district to look closely at the two assessment methods, and how they impact both towns, to try to come to some agreement.
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said the meeting resulted from a request for more information on the assessment portion of the regional agreement at the School Committee’s September meeting.
“What’s in play is the agreement [or alternative] method we’ve been following as a district since 1991 and a statutory method,” he said. “Both are legal methods of assessing.”
The agreement [or alternative] method is based on student population between the two towns and the statutory method uses the towns’ minimum local contributions as a starting point.
Lynch said the statutory method derived as part of the Education Reform Act in 1993, which required towns to reach a minimum local contribution as part of Chapter 70 funding requirements.
“Unfortunately, there was very little consideration for towns that were part of regional school districts,” she said. Most regions were formed in the 1950s with a per-pupil funding formula. An amendment to the Ed Reform Act later permitted regions to revert to using the agreement method.
“But, they set a higher bar,” Lynch said. “Instead of the two-thirds [of member towns] approval of the budget, which is your typical way to approve a regional school committee budget, the requirement then became that you have to approve it unanimously to use the agreement method.”
There are about 30 two-town regional school districts in Massachusetts.
“You are not unique,” she said. “Many of these districts have gone through this over past years.”
She added that many towns, over time, have come to some agreement, involving some compromise, to move forward and get their budget passed each year without a lot of discussion.
When a budget impasse does occur the Education Commissioner is authorized to set a 1/12th budget for the district under the statutory method until a workable local budget is approved, according to Lynch.
“Should there be no local budget by Dec. 1, the statute also requires the Commissioner to take over fiscal control of the district,” she said. “Under that scenario, the assessments must be calculated under the statutory methodology.”
Hanson Town Counsel Kate Feodoroff asked if the state took over, what does that look like, because she found the state funding source hard to identify in that scenario.
“That final budget [the commissioner] sets for the year, may be more than was set as the 1/12 budget, could be less than, could be the same,” Lynch said. Letters would be sent out to school and town officials asking why they want the money they are asking for in their budget.
“Ultimately, the commissioner will set it,” she said. The statutory method would be used to calculate the budget, using current state aid figures. The commissioner, however takes over fiscal control, approving all line items, collective bargaining agreements, new contracts over $25,000, new hires — basically any financial decision made at the district level.
While Lynch encouraged the School Committee to work with the towns to come up with an assessment method, the committee has the right to propose that method.
The Education Reform Act itself was the result of a lawsuit in which the state was accused of not devoting enough money to education.
School Committee member Fred Small said Whitman’s minimum local contribution was $10,631,538 last year while the assessment was $14,398,151. In Hanson, the required contribution was $8,892,401 and the assessment was $9,670,975.
“There’s a vast disparity in what was spent more than the required dollars,” he said.
Small noted that the committee owes the town a direction as finance committees begin preparing budgets.