Heath Selectboard opts against Special Town Meeting on school assessment formula

By BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer

Published: 10-20-2023 1:06 PM

HEATH — Despite a request from the Mohawk Trail Regional School District School Committee, the Selectboard has opted not to call a Special Town Meeting for the town to revote on changes proposed to the district’s regional agreement that would alter the town assessment formula.

This week’s decision was made in agreement with the Finance Committee, which voted unanimously earlier this month to not recommend holding a Special Town Meeting, a decision that is ultimately up to the Selectboard. Finance Committee Chair Tom Lively explained his committee’s discussion “centered on needing the time to research and verify the article” presented by the school district between now and the spring Annual Town Meeting.

“The Selectboard said they hope that their decision could be taken as an attempt to educate themselves and the townspeople,” Town Coordinator Hilma Sumner said following Tuesday’s Selectboard meeting. “It was not taken as a resistance to the proposed changes because they have not yet made an opinion.”

School Committee Chair Martha Thurber said she found the Selectboard’s decision “disappointing.”

“This negated the votes of the other towns who already approved the amendments,” Thurber said, referencing the six Mohawk Trail Regional School District member towns that have approved the regional agreement changes. “I thought the citizens should have an opportunity to vote.”

District representatives came to all member towns about a month before the towns’ respective Annual Town Meetings this year, requesting they vote to change the regional agreement to alter the assessment formula.

Town assessments are currently calculated by counting the number of students enrolled on a five-year rolling average in the Mohawk Trail Regional School District. This is called “complete enrollment.” Depending on the ratio of students enrolled over that five-year period, each town pays its share of the district’s capital costs and operating expenses.

The revised agreement, which is 16 pages long and involves approving three Town Meeting warrant articles, would use “foundation enrollment” to calculate town assessments. Foundation enrollment numbers factor in School Choice students, residents who opt to attend a charter school and out-of-district special education students.

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Foundation enrollment is used by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to calculate funding allocations, and the School Committee argues these changes would result in a more equitable situation for the towns. Mohawk Trail’s regional agreement, the committee has noted, was written before School Choice existed in Massachusetts.

Although six of the district’s eight member towns have approved the proposed changes, they can’t take effect until they are approved by all eight member towns. Heath and Plainfield are the two remaining towns, and Plainfield has yet to decide whether to call a Special Town Meeting.

As the task of crafting a fiscal year 2025 budget will begin in the coming months, the School Committee wishes to know if it should factor in this new assessment method in the budgeting process.

In the meeting last week where the Finance Committee decided to not recommend holding a Special Town Meeting, Ken Rocke, a Heath resident with a background in education, gave a presentation outlining why he thinks Heath’s annual school assessments will rise by between $163,000 and $171,000. This projection is far higher than the net-change projections provided by the school district of about $19,000 to $37,000.

According to Rocke, the largest factor in why Heath’s assessments would be much higher than those of other towns in the district is the high number of out-of-district Heath students who attend Rowe Elementary School and Hawlemont Regional School.

“It was also disappointing we didn’t have an opportunity to have a chance to respond to the presentation,” Thurber said, noting that the School Committee didn’t see the presentation information beforehand to digest the numbers and respond. She was also disappointed the School Committee did not have a chance to speak with the Selectboard before it made its decision.

According to Sumner, Selectboard members feel they were not given enough time to make an informed decision about which way they should vote on the regional agreement changes. The town’s response was similar when the School Committee originally requested votes on the agreement ahead of Annual Town Meeting earlier this year.

“The basic reason being that they, once again, did not believe they had been given enough time to study and analyze the information,” she said.

Selectboard members have also said this decision is too important to be made at a Special Town Meeting that typically attracts far fewer voters than an Annual Town Meeting.

“They want as many people as possible to be able to vote on it,” Sumner said.

Now that Heath will not convene a Special Town Meeting, the School Committee cannot use “foundation enrollment” to calculate town assessments when crafting the fiscal year 2025 budget.

Thurber said she is unsure of the next steps for the School Committee. However, the committee will be seeking legal guidance to see if there is any way the district can change the assessment formula without having to go back to all eight member towns again for approval.

“We will be talking with our lawyer,” she said, “and [the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s] lawyer for the next steps.”

Reach Bella Levavi at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.