Heath, Mohawk struggle with school closure

  • Heath town sign. PAUL FRANZ

Recorder Staff
Thursday, February 16, 2017

BUCKLAND — The Mohawk Trail Regional School District Committee approved its $19.4 million budget proposal for the coming school year, but voted down Heath’s request for additional money needed to operate its sparsely populated elementary school for another year.

Heath officials would like to close the elementary school, which now has about 31 students, if they have a good alternative for all elementary students, close to home. Currently, Heath is considering a tuition agreement with either the Hawlemont Regional School or with Rowe. But Heath and other annual town meeting voters within the Mohawk district will have the ultimate decision on whether to close the 22-year-old school at the annual town meeting.

Heath school board member Budge Litchfield asked the Mohawk committee to add a $230,000 contingency fund — in case Heath doesn’t have a tuition agreement in hand, or the unanimous town meeting votes to support school closure.

Although Heath’s Mohawk assessment is rising by $20,000, the money budgeted for its elementary students was cut from $1.1 million (to run the Heath School) to about $686,000. School Superintendent Michael Buoniconti has said that putting another $230,000 into the budget would raise town assessments from a collective 3.5 percent increase to about a 5 percent increase.

Litchfield said not budgeting enough money to adequately run the Heath School “would constitute closing the school,” which is in violation of Mohawk’s regional agreement. “There are questions as to whether this could be done,” he said, suggesting that lawyers might contest it.

He suggested the Heath education budget cut would essentially force the school’s closing and harbor a sense of mistrust. “I don’t believe that taking actions that can be perceived in a completely negative light is going to help,” Litchfield said.

Litchfield suggested the extra $230,000 could either come from any additional rural school aid that might be coming from the state, or from the district’s “rainy day” funds. He said there could be a provision that it would only be used if Heath doesn’t have a tuition agreement or the required votes for closure.

“I’m going to vote no,” said Emily Robertson of Ashfield. “None of us want lawyers. The majority of the towns are saying they can’t afford another $230,000. Our revolving (rainy-day) funds are already as low as we can go. I think this plan we put forth gives us lots of opportunity to find options before September.”

Buoniconti has said he would “find more money” to run the Heath School if the plans fall through for Heath students to move to another school.

Suzanne Crawford of Hawley asked if Heath’s children could be school-choiced to either Rowe or Hawlemont if the tuition agreement isn’t in place by then.

Buoniconti said he thought it might be doable. “There are a lot of moving parts,” he said. “But it’s a possibility.”

Leslie Rule of Plainfield said she didn’t understand why relocating Heath’s students to Mohawk district schools Colrain Central or Buckland Shelburne, was being characterized as a “terrible option.”

“To ask this committee to take money they don’t have and ask them to put it into this school — because a town can’t come to grips with the fact that they don’t have a school they can afford?” Rule asked. She said she didn’t see going to Colrain or Heath “as being this devastating thing for your kids.”

The committee defeated Litchfield’s proposal with by a 7-4 vote with two abstentions.

The School Committee is required to approve a district budget by March 1, before it goes before the eight-member towns for approval in annual town meetings.