Select Boards, Finance Committees, School Committees of all 4 towns in the Region
Over 40 local officials from four towns -- all but one of them white -- came together this morning to discuss the upcoming budget for the Regional School District, a community they collectively share, although Amherst makes up the major portion -- 88% by population.
Maria Geryk, Mike Morris, Sean Mangano craft a Regional Budget for 4 town approval
School Superintend for the Region (Amherst, Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury) Maria Geryk started off the meeting saying they were, "Very much at the beginning of the process, but it's important for you to share with us."
If this were a political rally -- which in a sense it is -- this would probably be considered a straw vote.
Three of the four towns have to approve the Regional School Budget, and then the 4th town is legally bound by the Regional Agreement to accept that status quo.
And for all of the towns the combined Regional assessment (grades 7-12) and their Elementary School budget make up the lion's share of total town spending.
List of most recent cuts by Governor Patrick
School Finance Director Sean Mangano started off the meeting with the bad news: Outgoing Governor Patrick's recent budget cuts (mainly impacting ARPS transportation fund by $200,000) means that a starting deficit for the upcoming year expands from a projected $760,000 to an uncomfortable $990,000.
The Region has been using a different method of funding called Regional Agreement Method which takes into consideration a 5 year rolling average. Thus for a few years it works to a town's slight advantage and then for a few years not quite so much. But it all works out in the end.
Since this is a non standard way of doing business, by state law it must be approved by all four towns. Shutesbury is currently the town coming out a "loser" in the deal as the FY16 budget will be a 5.5% increase vs a 9.4% decrease if the Region suddenly switched to the "Statutory Method". Or a cost per pupil (139 students) of $11,921 under current system vs $10,240 under Statutory Method.
But many in the room described the current Regional Agreement Method of financing as "predictable, understandable, explainable, fair and equitable." And for hard pressed taxpayers complaining about the more expensive years, you can always tell them "relief is coming."
At one point a Leverett representative said this year is going to be a "particularly tough year" for the town because a large tax abatement case with a major landowner will tie up money that must be placed in escrow.
He wondered if the group would consider a 2.5% cut in the overall Regional Budget? School officials quickly noted that would be $1 million and simply not possible. Especially since they are now facing a budget already requiring $1 million in cuts.
Amherst Town Manager Musante suggested a tweak be found to help Leverett so the overall process is not derailed
The large assembly heard an 8 minute report from Regional Agreement Working Group Chair (also an Amherst Select Board member) Andy Steinberg on the current status of the expansion of the Region from grades 7-12 all the way down to include pre-kindergarten thru 6th grade.
After 3 years of RAWG meetings the final report is hoped to be delivered to the Regional School Committee by year's end. The RSC can then opt to change the Regional Agreement by a two-thirds affirmative vote thus sending the proposal to all four towns for Town Meeting approvals.
This too would require the unanimous approval of all four towns to amend the more than 50 year old Regional Agreement. A town could, however, then vote "no" to joining the newly expanded Region and continue to utilize only the 7-12 grades.
But only the three smaller hilltowns will have that option. Because Amherst is crucial to the operation due to sheer size it is assumed that a yes vote to form the Region is also a yes vote to join it (since it could not get off the ground without Amherst).
Interestingly if one or two of the hilltowns votes not to join (but supports its creation) they would still have elected members on the new Regional School Committee that oversees the K-12 entity. A form of "representation without taxation."
But with all the turmoil and drama currently happening in the Regional School District, it's hard to imagine all four towns agreeing to expand the system.