The School Committee, meeting on Wednesday, May 10 discussed members’ concerns over a proposed wording change in the Regional Agreement revision that could surrender its authority in determining what costs go before Town Meeting.
Committee Vice Chair Christopher Scriven presided at the meeting, as Chair Christopher Howard had resigned effective following the May 1 town meetings. Committee member Fred Small was also absent as he was traveling.
“I’m outraged,” said Dawn Byers, who chairs the Capital Operations and Technology Subcommittee. “Everyone on the School Committee should be outraged that the Board of Selectmen in Hanson made a decision that they don’t have the legal authority to do. We need to understand this, and it’s so important.”
She said that, while the Select Board has the authority to place things on the warrant, it is not their place to reject an article voted by the School Committee, according to MGL Ch. 71 ss16 (h). She urged the committee to have School District legal counsel to send a letter to the towns, reminding them of Mass. General Law language on the issue.
While Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak thanked the town meetings and residents who turned out and supported the school budget without question on May 1 as well as support for capital technology items on the warrant in Whitman, he noted that Hanson had not placed the capital items on the warrant.
Town officials, he explained, plan to place them on the October special Town Meeting, but the move to reject it from placement on the Hanson warrant caused outrage and concern among School Committee members.
The installation of the new switches and interactive boards will move forward in Whitman schools. For the high school, with Whitman’s funding approved, once Hanson approves it, the work can begin with placing the boards in January.
Szymaniak said he did speak with district council as well as that of the Mass. Association of School Committees and the Mass. Association of Regional Schools (MARS). The only thing select boards are obligated to place on the warrant is the assessment, he was told.
The operating and transportation assessments and capital get asssment for immediate needs must be placed, he said.
“An operational capital item, a want, a truck [for example], they can choose not to put that on a warrant,” he said.
Those “wants,” select boards are entitled to decide whether they want to do, noting that Hanson Capital Committee Chair Frank Milisi told him the town was putting zero capital articles on the warrant this year, so the district was aware it would not be there.
“You don’t ever hear them rejecting something from South Shore Vo Tech, which is another regional school district,” she said. “The reason it was on the Whitman warrant is because they knew they couldn’t reject it.”
Byers noted that Assistant Superintendent George Ferro called the move the “will of the Hanson voters,” but she said that characterization was incorrect.
“The Board of Selectmen pulled that ability away from the Hanson voters,” Byers said. “I’m certain the voters want this in Hanson, but they didn’t have the ability because the Board of Selectmen did not give the voters that choice.”
Szymaniak said if the Hanson Select Board does not place it on the October warrant, town meeting rules permit the article to be placed by citizen’s petition.
Byers said if the Hanson officials were going to look at the School Committee’s capital articles as requests, they should send their entire capital matrix along to the Capital and Finance committees. Charged with prioritizing needs, Byers said her committee did so by forwarding the technology needs.
“Maintenance is going to have to take a back seat for the year,” she said. “All of those conversations happened.”
School Committee member Beth Stafford said towns traditionally place the articles, but pass over them at Town Meeting if they feel it is necessary.
Scriven thanked Whitman Town Administrator Mary Beth Carter for her comments at Town Meeting about the need to start budget discussions earlier and engaging more with Hanson officials in that process.
The Regional Agreement Committee (RAC), meanwhile, is in a pause with Howard’s departure from the School Committee, Szymaniak said. To reorganize the RAC panel a revote of a representative from Whitman and one from Hanson will be necessary. Hanson will have to name a new Select Board representative, as well. That reorganization meeting will follow the Town Elections, which will be held on May 20.
Questions asked of counsel stemming from the discussion on consensus votes for the revised agreement were discussed last week, however.
Byers questioned the addition of the word “consider” following a phrase outlining how Select Boards “shall” forward warrant articles to Town Meeting.
“It completely changes the dynamic of what our 10-member committee has the authority to do – which is vote for things, and it shall go to Town Meeting,” Byers said, noting that changing one word only says select boards “shall consider” doing so. “Basically, this committee gives up our authority to the towns for them to make the decision.”
Byers said that was her reason for asking that the agreement come back to the School Committee before going forward for review by MARS or legal.
“There is no doubt it was going to come back to this committee,” Scriven said. “That’s the final process. We’re sending it out to MARS and our legal to help us clean up our language that we come up with in our meetings.”
Final drafts with changes clearly marked will be brought back for RAC to review again.
Szymaniak said when it comes back to the RAC it will also be forwarded to the full School Committee and both Select Boards before it must go before both Town Meetings and then to the Department or Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
“This is still a long process,” he said.
Member Glen DiGravio asked what recourse the committee would have if the wording change is deemed illegal.
“What do we do about it, file a lawsuit?” he asked.
Szymaniak replied the committee has talked about such a move in the past, but that it’s like suing the state.
“I think that’s a conversation with the town,” he summed up. “But our modus operandi has to change on how we assess things.”
In other business, Business Manager John Stanbrook reviewed the state aid outlook for fiscal 2024 saying that while the House Ways and Means budget breakdown for Chapter 70 is out and the Senate version has just been released, the latter has not yet been broken down to the town and district levels.
“This will be updated very soon by the state Department of Revenue,” he said.
The House version had transportation reimbursement at 100 percent.
Stanbrook said the overall net in Cherry Sheet funds over last year is $503,949 or 2.01 percent.
“But you have to look closely at the numbers there,” he said, noting that regional transportation is listed as $449,379 of the $503,949 related to the change from a per pupil to per mile formula, without which, the increase would be $54,000 or .22 percent.
“There’s still a long way to go,” he said of the state budget.
Where the current fiscal 2023 budget is seeing concern is in Charter schools – already $18,000 over budget with two months to go, leaving him to anticipate a shortfall of about $70,000 more by the end of the fiscal year, but transportation is about to be over by about the same two amounts, because costs have been lower than was budgeted. Homeless transportation costs are still incomplete.
“That’s kind of the amount that will make or break whether we hit our revenue budget,” he said.