Hawlemont, Heath regionalization coming before Charlemont voters Tuesday

  • Charlemont voters will be asked to weigh in on the Hawlemont-Heath regionalization process during Special Town Meeting on Tuesday. Staff FILE PHOTO

Published: 10/18/2019 11:36:34 PM

CHARLEMONT — In addition to considering a few funding proposals, Charlemont residents will be asked to weigh in on the Hawlemont-Heath regionalization process during Special Town Meeting on Tuesday.

The 7 p.m. meeting will be held at Hawlemont Regional Elementary School.

Residents will vote on whether to support: Heath entering the Hawlemont Regional School District, an updated regionalization agreement to include Heath and special legislation that’s needed for the proposed three-town school district.

‘A complicated process’

The Hawlemont-Heath regionalization process has been ongoing for years.

“It’s a complicated process,” said Budge Litchfield, a Heath resident who is a member of the Hawlemont-Heath Regionalization Study Group.

The current regional agreement between Charlemont and Hawley — the two towns in the Hawlemont Regional School District — needs to be updated with language allowing Heath to join.

The regional agreement was given to the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education months ago, and returned to the study group for clarification in early September, after Hawley voted to approve the agreement, according to Hussain Hamdan, a Hawley resident and member of both the Hawlemont School Committee and Hawlemont-Heath Regionalization Study Group.

Hamdan explained that there are many aspects of the regionalization process that are happening at once. Once all three towns vote to support special legislation that addresses voting on a three-town school committee and unanimous school budget approval at the towns’ respective Annual Town Meetings, Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, will introduce it at the State House. Tuesday’s vote could garner Charlemont’s support.

Meanwhile, most towns will hold off on voting on the regional agreement itself until their Annual Town Meeting, Hamdan said, “By which point we hope we have it all amended to a form that everyone’s going to be happy with.”

Another piece of the puzzle is the series of actions that Heath must take to leave the Mohawk Trail Regional School District for preschool through sixth grade.

Savings for Charlemont

The special legislation and projected finances if Heath were a Hawlemont member town were outlined during a presentation by Superintendent Michael Buoniconti and the Mohawk Trail school district’s Business Administrator Melissa Dunnet earlier this month. The presentation, attended by Charlemont officials and members of the Hawlemont School Committee, explained that Heath would join the school district without a buy-in, but would be included alongside Charlemont and Hawley in future capital expenses incurred by the three-town school district.

At an information session in Charlemont, slides addressed the actual cost to member towns this year alongside projected costs, if Heath had been a member town this year.

“These are real numbers,” Litchfield said, of the actual costs paid and the projections, made using this year’s budget numbers.

For fiscal year 2020, Charlemont owed $820,000 for its costs to the district’s budget. If Heath had been a member town, Charlemont would have paid just over $670,000.

“Currently, Charlemont is paying 78 percent of the operating cost assessment for the district,” Litchfield said. “If Heath has been a member (town) in fiscal year ’20, Charlemont would be paying less than 50 percent (of costs). That’s a decrease of about 30 percent.”

Litchfield explained that the reduction in cost would have come from a five-year enrollment average, providing a buffer for large variations in enrollment. In the proposed agreement, the amount each member town owes would be calculated from the percentage of its student enrollment in the district.

In the current, two-town school district, Charlemont’s student enrollment is about 78 percent of all students. If Heath were a member this year, Charlemont’s student enrollment would have represented about 48 percent of the total. since the percentage each town owes is based on a five -year enrollment average, those percentages are buffered to year-to-year shifts

“That percentage is a much more reliable and important figure than the dollar figure,” Litchfield said, adding that the dollar figure is less stable.

Enacting checks and balances through legislation

Currently, the Hawlemont School Committee has equal representation from each of the two towns.

“That’s worked,” Litchfield said, adding that going forward, “we’re going to try to (maintain) those parts of the agreement that have seemed to stand the test of time.”

The proposed three-town School Committee, by contrast, would have six members, two from each town.

“The commonwealth is very, very focused on honoring the constitutional provision of one person, one vote,” Litchfield said, which is why the School Committee will have a weighted voting system: The votes from members from larger towns will have more weight than those from smaller towns.

However, two mechanisms that act as a series of checks and balances will require special legislation, Litchfield said. The mechanisms hearken back to provisions in the current regional agreement, which protect the interests of a small town and a large town working together.

“For a motion before the School Committee to pass, at least one member for each town must vote affirmative,” Litchfield said of the first mechanism.

The second mechanism is unanimous budget approval.

“Any budget that goes out to School Committee has to be approved in town meetings of all three member towns,” Hamdan said, as opposed to the two-thirds of member towns, which is used in other regional school districts around the state.

Reach Maureen O’Reilly at 413-772-0261, ext. 280 or moreilly@recorder.com.

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