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State changes may affect Mohawk budget

BUCKLAND — Last week’s changes to the state’s Chapter 70 aid formula for public education could mean more budget tweaking for the Mohawk Trail Regional School District, if member towns agree to amend the budget at special town meetings.

But that’s a big “if” — considering that the new calculation would raise Heath’s assessment by a whopping $74,928, boost Charlemont’s by $1,454, and reduce six other towns’ assessments by a total of $76,382. If either Heath or Charlemont decline to raise their own assessments, the current spending plan will likely stand.

Mohawk school board members will be going to their member towns over the next two weeks, to explain this new budget wrinkle and get feedback on what to do about it.

Mohawk already has an approved budget for the coming school year, including $9.2 million in town assessments, and doesn’t legally have to do anything but go forward with the budget already in place.

But school board Chairman Robert Aeschback of Plainfield thought School Committee members should at least inform their town’s selectmen of the issue and bring back their recommendations for moving forward.

“This is a no-win situation for the School Committee,” he remarked. “If we revote the school budget, that would upset Heath and Charlemont. If we don’t revote, we’ll get calls from the other towns.”

Shelburne would save $21,587 from its $1.78 million assessment this year. For Colrain, the assessment change would amount to a $30,107 savings, while Ashfield would save $15,978 for the coming school year. Buckland would save $3,013, Hawley would save $3,854 and Plainfield would save $1,844.

On Monday night, the Ashfield Selectboard told School Committee member Emily Robertson it favors seeking a budget amendment to get the reduced assessment.

“I don’t see that we’re going to volunteer to pass up $16,000,” said Selectboard Chairman Thomas Carter. “We work all winter to find ways to save that amount of money.”

Robertson explained that this year’s assessments were based on the governor’s budget projections, which calculated minimum required spending levels in a different manner than what was adopted by the Legislature.

Towns that would see spending decreases would not need to hold special town meetings, but Charlemont and Heath would have to both call a special town meeting and get a two-thirds vote of approval for their assessment increases. Failure to either call a meeting or to get two-thirds voter approval would leave the budget the way it is.

When the Mohawk board first learned of this quagmire, member Joseph Kurland of Colrain pointed out the unfairness of the state’s assessment formula. “This is an example of what is wrong with the assessments by the state,” he said. “Towns can only collect taxes based on property (values) — not taxes based on income. But school assessments are based 50 percent on personal income and 50 percent on property values.”

In an advisory memo, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education says the new spending formula must be factored in by school systems that don’t yet have an approved budget.

But for school districts like Mohawk, the state recommends keeping the existing budget plan — even if the new assessment requirements are below the already approved town assessments.

The School Committee will discuss how to adjust the budget at its Aug. 14 meeting.

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