Mohawk Trail Regional School District seeks $44K from Heath after enrollment mistake

For the Recorder
Published: 5/28/2022 1:52:42 PM

HEATH — Mohawk Trail Regional School District officials say an undercount of 33 Heath students at Hawlemont Regional School during the 2020-21 school year led to a $44,410 shortfall in Heath’s school assessment last year. Now the question is, how to make up for the financial gap?

A week before its Annual Town Meeting, the Heath Selectboard removed Mohawk Trail’s requested warrant article for the town to pay that bill, for an earlier fiscal year. Finance Committee Chair Thomas Lively said the town can’t legally pay a past fiscal year bill with money slated for the current budget year. He recounted that town officials had questioned the school district’s low enrollment figures earlier — and that Mohawk Trail or its business management service, TMS, should have caught the error sooner.

In February 2022, Mohawk Trail/Hawlemont Superintendent Sheryl Stanton notified Mohawk Trail’s member towns that Heath had only been assessed for 10 elementary students who were enrolled in Mohawk Trail’s elementary schools and not for the 33 Heath students tuitioned to Hawlemont Regional School under an unusual Mohawk Trail district agreement with Heath. That agreement, negotiated at the time of the Heath Elementary School closure, was for Mohawk Trail to pay tuition, transportation and special needs costs for Heath students to attend Hawlemont, and to be repaid by Heath’s school assessment.

The mistaken low-enrollment calculation for Heath resulted in overcharges for five member towns — giving them a larger share of district costs, based on faulty enrollment ratios. Stanton’s letter explained the mistake and corrected other towns’ assessments. The Mohawk Trail school district is repaying those towns by deducting those overpayments from this year’s school assessments. Those overpayments credited back to member towns are: Ashfield, $9,476; Buckland, $12,231; Colrain, $9,621; Plainfield, $3,400; and Shelburne, $9,713.

Both Stanton and business management services TMS were new to the district when the enrollment figures were compiled. Additionally, at the time, many students were being homeschooled or sent to private schools because of COVID-19 health safety concerns by their families.

“TMS had only been in place for a few months and didn’t know that Heath students going to Hawlemont were technically ‘Mohawk students,’” explained School Committee Chair Martha Thurber. “They looked at the Oct. 1 enrollment data at Mohawk schools. There was no reason for TMS to look at Hawlemont student enrollment and know that Heath students should be included as Mohawk’s responsibility.”

In April, the Heath Selectboard responded to Mohawk Trail’s request for the past due sum of $44,410 by asking for more information about how the error came about and whether the business management company, or the school district, should be liable for the mistake.

In a letter on May 3, Heath officials said they were filing a public records request that includes a copy of the negotiated contract between Mohawk Trail and TMS, a copy of any liability insurance and all security bonds held by TMS, and full Excel workbooks (not online copies) for both fiscal years 2022 and 2023.

“What is at stake is a member town being held responsible for the negligence of an independent firm and the district officials involved in this,” states a letter from the Selectboard to school officials. The letter states the town voted for the assessment requested last year “in good faith.”

“To then be able to return to a member town and request more funds, when another party is responsible for the error, speaks to a lack of accountability,” the Selectboard’s letter continues.

Thurber said the school district isn’t legally required to release its full Excel workbooks, which include personnel information not pertinent to Heath’s issue.

“Our attorney says (Massachusetts Public Records Law) only requires us to provide the information — but not that specific form,” Thurber explained.

She also said the mistake made by TMS doesn’t meet the criteria of “negligence,” according to the school’s attorney.

Mohawk Trail is now hoping to reach an agreement with Heath for the town to pay the balance in installments, interest-free.

“We have accepted responsibility and have apologized for this many times,” Thurber said. “It’s unfortunate, but we don’t have any pools of money that are ours to pay this with. I’m hopeful we’re moving forward toward a resolution.”


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