School Committee Meeting: Buckle up…..we’re going over the falls

 

AWRSD School Committee Meeting held June 26, 2013 in the Oakmont Regional High School Library:

The School Committee meeting of 6/26 wasn’t called to order until 7:10, when the committee reached a quorum, as a number of committee members were late arriving from the wake for Ron McGuire, a well-known Westminster resident who had died unexpectedly. The meeting then started, as always, with the Pledge of Allegiance, but from there on it was a different type of meeting.

First of all, there were a large number of concerned citizens from both Westminster and Ashburnham in attendance, quite unusual for school committee meetings, which often play to an empty house. The reason for this surge in attendance was concern for the school system, after the failure of the school district’s funding override in Ashburnham-- if nothing is done this means yet again more cuts to our school district. Not counting the upcoming year, Ashburnham Westminster Regional School District (AWRSD) has had to cut staff and services for 5 of the past 7 years. This override failure would make it 6 for 8, higher even than Jose Iglesias’ batting average.

 

A number of parents and at least one teacher spoke, and all said basically the same thing—that the cuts necessary to reduce the budget were unacceptable, as were the continuing large class sizes which will only get larger next fiscal year (school year July 2013 through June 2014). All urged the School Committee to not accept the dramatically lower amount approved by the towns for the schools, but instead to call for a Joint Town Meeting.

Note that on Facebook the comments are even more extreme and frustrated. A Facebook group called It Takes a Village is a local page started by Westminster parent KC McNally. It’s open to AWRSD parents and teachers. This group is a vehicle for getting information to group members.

Some background on the situation: At their annual Town Meeting, Westminster rejected the School Committee’s original budget, which called for the addition to staff of two new teachers, for the expressed goal of reducing class sizes in the largest classes (29 to 30 students) currently attending J.R. Briggs and Westminster Elementary School. This constituted the first failure to pass a school budget.

Next, the School Committee recertified a lower, “level services” budget, intended to keep staffing levels the same in the upcoming budget year (2013 to 2014). Westminster then passed this budget at a Special Town Meeting, but Ashburnham had to go to an override, and it was defeated on Tuesday 6/25 (763 to 527). That constituted the second time the School District had been unable to pass a budget.

At this point, with two failures, Mass General Laws take over, specifically Chapter 71, Section 16B. It’s worth reading, but the gist of it is that the School Committee can either accept the lower amounts already approved by the towns, which is this case would result in AWRSD cutting nearly $400,000 from its budget, or calling a Joint Town Meeting. There aren’t any other choices, by law. The School Committee, unanimously, voted to call a Joint Town Meeting.

A Joint Town Meeting called for this purpose is different from a usual Town Meeting. In this Joint Town Meeting, the majority rules--The 'towns' don't each have one vote. Rather, every voter at the meeting has one vote (turnout is very important). The meeting is run by the School Committee, while the Board of Selectmen have no specific duties at this meeting other than to appoint a moderator.

The last time Ashburnham and Westminster had to go to a Joint Town Meeting was in 2003, and people in attendance still remember it vividly. It apparently was ‘tumultuous’…lots of hard feelings, high emotions, not much seating, and in the end, the school budget with the override amounts didn’t pass. Overall it was complicated and ugly. The minutes are actually online. Note: During Joint Town Meetings amendments on the floor are possible.

This time is somewhat unique. One of the bad things about a Joint Town Meeting is that at this point the Towns’ budgets are already set. For Westminster it’s not such a big deal, as the School Budget was actually approved at a Special Town Meeting, so it’s already baked into Westminster’s budget. Westminster is also in better financial shape than Ashburnham, and isn’t yet at their ‘levy limit’, meaning they can raise taxes as needed without having to go to an override. However, Westminster’s days of financial comfort are numbered as a large source of revenue, the landfill, is showing reduced revenue each year.

Ashburnham, on the other hand, is already in a tough spot, particularly if the new, certified school budget is passed at the Joint Town Meeting. It should be noted that the tax increase caused by the new J.R. Briggs Elementary School hasn’t hit Ashburnham taxpayers yet, with a 8-9% increase ($1.52 increase in the tax rate) estimated (by Ashburnham Town Administrator Doug Briggs) to hit property tax bills for fiscal year 2015.

A major problem for Ashburnham, since the override failed, is that they now don’t have the extra $180,000 necessary to pay the school assessment, were it to pass at the Joint Town Meeting. However, they’ll have to pay it anyway, by law, if it passes at the Joint Town Meeting, so the money will have to come from somewhere else in the budget. This means cuts to other areas already funded by Ashburnham, or possibly another override attempt to pay for something else besides the schools (I’m not sure this is even a viable option). It’s a very tough position, made worse because Ashburnham is at their levy limit, so they cannot, under proposition 2-1/2, simply raise taxes.

Before going to the Joint Town Meeting, the School Committee wants to take their time, or as much time as feasible, to come up with a new, certified school budget, reflecting as closely as possible what is needed. As School Committee Chairman Dave Christianson pointed out, they don’t want to delay anymore than absolutely necessary, as these cuts involve people who will lose their jobs if more funding cannot be raised, but they must get it right.

The School Committee is hopeful that the state will have decided by July 1st how much school aid AWRSD will get, so that number will finally be firm, allowing for a more accurate budget. Another financial factor to take into account is that the school district’s E&D fund (Excess and Deficiency fund, or ‘rainy day’ fund) is over the allowed limit (5%), so the schools will be refunding a proportional amount to each town, $50,000 to Ashburnham and $61,500 to Westminster.

If, at the Joint Town Meeting, there is a failure to agree on a budget, then the state allows budgeting month by month, based on the prior year’s budget, through December 1, 2013. If it’s still undecided at that point, the state basically takes over and sets the budget.

Since absolutely no one wants the state to take over (we see how well they do at everything else they manage), the real fallback position would be for the school committee to accept the $386,000 in cuts and make the needed layoffs.

Almost equally as ugly as that outcome, if the budget stands as it now exists, with cuts of almost $400,000 to the district, there will be two teacher layoffs at the Elementary level (one per town), a layoff at Overlook, and two major classes cut at Oakmont. Other items will be postponed, such as spending on technology, which could have an effect on the district’s compliance with the new Common Core standards.

The Joint Town Meeting is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, July 23 at 7:00pm at Oakmont. In 2003 approximately 1,400 people attended, so come early for a seat. The logistics should be interesting, or worse.

The next School Committee meeting will certify the budget to be considered at the July 23 meeting. This School Committee meeting will be held in the Oakmont library (it's air conditioned) on July 9 at 7:00 pm.