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Role of informal Gill-Montague budget panel in question

MONTAGUE — A perceived slight to an ad hoc group behind the 2010 budget compact that ended what had become an annual deadlock between school district and towns ignited fierce disagreement at Tuesday’s Gill-Montague Regional School Committee meeting.

Asked whether he intended to meet with the group, variously referred to as the technical panel or technical committee, Interim Superintendent Mark Prince said the work of the panel was complete and he did not expect to do so, but was open to suggestions from any citizen group.

Committee member Sandra Brown posed the question and objected to the answer, as did several others.

“I don’t think it was meant to be a one-time thing, I think it was meant to keep going,” Brown said, saying the panel offered expertise and hours of work no one else was willing to do.

The technical panel was or is an unofficial group responsible for the budget compact signed by the district and towns and endorsed by state legislators and the education department in 2010, and for developing the financial scenario on which it was based.

Under the compact, the towns agreed to try to give the school district about 3 percent more each year for five years, with the district agreeing to try to present a level-funded budget for the following year and then hold to a 2.5 percent increase for the next four.

The agreement ended four years of budget deadlock between the district and its member towns, during which the state twice stepped in to set the budget and take fiscal control of the district.

Debate revolved around the importance of the technical panel in developing a budget agreeable to both towns and the district.

Member Jennifer Waldron said the work of the tech panel ended the annual budget impasse because it involved the towns at an early stage.

“What came out of it we ratified and supported and gave our word to the towns that we would continue with that work,” Waldron said.

“The towns cannot be cut out before the process or everything is going to break loose, there’s going to be bad feelings again,” she said.

Prince said he intends to work with the towns through their respective finance committees and present to them the same budget information he brings to the School Committee.

Prince said he and his administrators are ultimately responsible for developing the budget presented to the School Committee, and while he is open to input from any citizen group,there is a difference between working with town bodies and informal groups.

Member Michael Langknecht said budget policy obliges the district to engage the various towns.

Spoken to the following day, Allen Tupper Brown of the Gill Finance Committee said the tech panel has been made up of himself, Michael Naughton of the Montague Finance Committee, former School Committee member Jeffrey Singleton and the current superintendent, whoever that might be.

The panel still exists in that its members are still alive, but has not met recently although it did meet once, including Prince, sometime after Prince’s appointment, according to Tupper Brown.

Tupper Brown, who is married to Sandra Brown, said the panel, including its composition, are informal and the group is not a public body nor has it ever had an official charge from a public body.

What became the panel began as a small group of people interested in the question of school finance, he said, eventually suggesting a second group, the oversight group also referred to as the oversight committee.

That group, itself not a public body, included representatives from the state education department, towns and local legislators, and eventually suggested the smaller group carry on with its work, he said, thus anointing the tech panel.

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