Mohawk budget sparks talk of consolidation

BUCKLAND — Mohawk Superintendent Michael Buoniconti brought both good and bad budget news for town officials.

The good news was that newly completed “Green Repair” projects for all three Mohawk schools came in at least one-third below the budgeted costs.

But the bad news was that, although next year’s $17.27 million budget proposal is $366,043 less than the district’s budget from five years ago, towns will see a collective 21∕2 percent assessment increase — despite the district’s use of $1 million from its revolving account revenues to keep town contributions low.

Even so, six out of eight towns will see assessment hikes ranging from 2 percent to 12 percent.

But town officials expressed concern that Mohawk might be a few years away from its own fiscal cliff, if it keeps spending down reserve funds to balance the budget. And they revived talk of how the district might go about consolidating the students into fewer schools, which are at about a third capacity.

“We are spending $400,000 more from our revolving funds than we should be,” warned Buoniconti. He explained that Mohawk brings in about $650,000 per year in revolving funds. To remain “sustainable,” he said, the district cannot afford to spend more than it takes in annually.

He noted that negotiated labor contracts are coming in with raises above the 21∕2 percent aggregate assessment increase to towns. Although the number of Mohawk district students in charter schools has remained about the same over the last five years, at about 46, the charter school costs to Mohawk have risen about 80 percent — to about $256,000.

And, although Mohawk brings in about $164,000 more in School Choice revenues than it spends for students choicing out, enrollment has been going down. Next year’s enrollment is expected to decrease by about 32 students.

Empty classrooms

Ashfield Selectboard member Ron Coler asked if vacant classroom space in the school buildings wasn’t “the elephant in the room.” He also asked if consolidating was being considered.

Ashfield is looking at a $93,000 or 5 percent budget increase for the coming school year.

School Committee member Joseph Kurland of Colrain explained that Mohawk held discussions about consolidating until school officials realized that closing any of the schools that were renovated with state money could be more costly to towns than continuing to operate them because they would have to pay back the state.

School Committee Chairman Robert Aeschbach of Plainfield said the school district might be able to work with the School Building Authority, if keeping all the school buildings open jeopardized the district’s solvency. But the bigger hurdle, he felt, would be in getting all eight Mohawk member towns to agree to close a school.

In the spring of 2006, Mohawk had submitted an annual town meeting warrant asking towns to change that 1993 regional agreement, giving the Mohawk committee authority to close any school. But that measure, which required agreement of all eight towns, was defeated. In December of that year, Buoniconti said closing a school renovated with state money wouldn’t save enough money, if the district was to lose state reimbursement funds for the buildings.

According to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, under the “old rules,” schools getting state construction money had to remain in existence as schools for at least 20 years after the bonds were issued. During the 1990s, Mohawk received roughly two-thirds reimbursement from the state for building the Heath Elementary School and Sanderson Academy, and for renovations to Mohawk and Buckland Shelburne Elementary. The debt was refinanced in 2010, and the 20-year period for the last Mohawk school project ends in 2018, said MSBA spokesman Matt Donovan.

If the district were in dire financial straits, he said the agency would “try to work in a collaborative way with the district. There are things we can do, but there are statutes we cannot bend on.”

According to a draft policy on “school closings, sales, leases or other removal from service,” removing a school from service could make a district ineligible for a future MSBA grant. Also, the School Building Authority could be entitled to proceeds from the sale or lease of the building. In addition, outstanding MSBA payments may be deducted from a town’s or school district’s annual operating budget state aid.

“The Authority has a local aid intercept authority and will use that mechanism unless a satisfactory agreement is reached with respect to any proceeds,” said the draft policy. “... the Authority anticipates that it will require applicants to pay all amounts owed to the Commonwealth... before additional grant applications will proceed.”

The district is also using $200,000 of its $700,000 Excess and Deficiency account to keep town assessments low. Buoniconti said this money is unencumbered and should be used as a stabilization account.”

As town officials asked about consolidating schools, Aeschback said any change in the regional agreement would have to come from town officials — not from the Mohawk School Committee.

“Here is our financial cliff, whether we close some schools or keep them all open and then go bankrupt,” Aeschback said.

Ashfield Finance Committee member Ted Murray suggested the Mohawk Municipal Advisory Committee might be the right organization to start discussions about changing the regional agreement, so that the eventual school consolidation might be possible.

Judd replied that MMAC tried to work with the school committee a few years ago, to revise Mohawk’s regional agreement. But it failed.

Upcoming costs

The two towns with an assessment decrease are Charlemont and Heath. Charlemont will see a 6 percent, $41,620 assessment drop. Heath will have a $23,651 assessment reduction, which is about 3 percent.

Here are the assessment increases for the rest: Ashfield $93,323, Hawley $15,178, Buckland $34,282; Colrain $60,185; Plainfield $15,843, and Shelburne $71,467.

The school committee is expected to vote to adopt its budget proposal on Wednesday, at 7 p.m. at Mohawk.

Green repair savings

The Mohawk Trail Regional School Green Repair project, which was expected to cost almost $1.7 million, came in at $1,054,181, resulting in a $632,209 savings for member towns.

The Buckland Shelburne Elementary School project, budgeted at $522,833, cost $345,004, saving those two towns $177,829. The Colrain Central School project cost $290,374 — $142,314 less than the projected cost.

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