Hawlemont School Committee fears ‘no vote’ for school budget

  • Hawlemont Regional Elementary School in Charlemont. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/13/2020 2:30:53 PM

CHARLEMONT — School Committee members are concerned the Hawlemont Regional School District budget is at risk for a “no vote” if the budget isn’t approved by Charlemont through a Special Town Meeting.

The two towns’ total assessment of $1.1 million, which was approved by the Hawlemont School Committee on Sept. 25, requires a Town Meeting vote from both Charlemont and Hawley. And although Hawley plans to vote on its assessment at its Special Town Meeting scheduled for Oct. 19, Charlemont does not plan to include the school budget as an article on its respective Town Meeting warrant on Nov. 14.

Although Heath also sends students to Hawlemont Regional Elementary School, as tuition-paying students, the town does not vote on the budget. Rather, their tuition is included in the budget as a revenue source line item.

“We have an unfortunate situation going on right now,” said Hussain Hamdan, who sits on both the Hawlemont School Committee and Hawley Selectboard.

A “no vote” on the school budget, according to School Committee members, would likely result in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) returning to the district with a one-twelfth budget based on the fiscal year 2020 budget.

Charlemont Selectboard member Marguerite Willis explained that state regulations require a Town Meeting vote to happen within 45 days of a school committee vote.

“The date they voted — if you count 45 days, that fell short of when we had already rescheduled our Town Meeting for November 14,” Willis said. “These are not decisions we get to make at the local level.”

Still, at its meeting last week, members of the Hawlemont School Committee expressed frustration with the Charlemont Selectboard for not including the town’s assessment as an article on its November warrant, or calling a separate Special Town Meeting for residents to vote on it.

“The consequence of this would be a default null on the budget,” Hamdan said.

Hawlemont School Committee member Charlie Ricko said he had attended a recent Charlemont Selectboard meeting, where the budget situation was discussed between himself and the two-person Selectboard.

“I was told that the town of Charlemont is not going to hold a Special Town Meeting to vote on this budget, and that this will result in a no vote,” Ricko said, “which I believe would choke our school out of existence.”

Leading up to the final vote on Sept. 25, the total appropriated operating budget of $2.2 million saw about $300,000 in cuts from the originally proposed $2.5 million budget. In a letter to the budget subcommittee, Hawlemont Regional Elementary School Principal Lindsey Rodriguez said this included cuts to full-time and part-time positions.

Hamdan explained that although the approved operating budget represents a decrease from fiscal year 2020, the decrease in revenue is what lead to a 3.5 percent increase to town assessments.

Other members of the School Committee said they were “stymied” by the town’s “refusal” to hold a Town Meeting vote on the budget.

“It is a major portion of the Charlemont budget,” Hamdan said. “It is a major portion of the Hawley budget. This is a problem.”

Hawley’s contribution toward the school budget was assessed at $262,040, compared to Charlemont’s assessment of $877,869, according to budget documents. Charlemont’s share is notably higher due to its higher enrollment.

Willis, however, emphasized that the Selectboard is required to follow the laws of the state.

“I regret immensely that this happened,” she said.

Willis said the committee needs to consult with DESE.

“We will probably have to live with that budget when DESE comes back to us, but it is not my decision,” Willis said. “We followed the law, as people expect us to follow the law in everything we do.”

Hamdan suggested a Charlemont resident circulate a citizen’s petition to request a Town Meeting vote on the school budget.

“I think the best way to avoid that is to try to get a Town Meeting to happen in some way, shape or form, regardless of whether two people want it to happen or not,” he said.

Willis said if residents want to petition the town, “that is their right and privilege.”

“But I would ask them to be considerate of the impact it may have while people are voting in a presidential election,” she added. “The workload (of the town) has tripled this year. It’s not simply voting on a paper ballot.”

Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne

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