Four towns reject Pioneer Valley school budget, state to step in

  • Pioneer Valley Regional School. Staff Photo/ANDY CASTILLO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/17/2019 10:53:34 PM

Residents rejected the Pioneer Valley Regional School District’s budget proposal in Town Meeting votes Monday night, forcing the school district into a state-controlled budget until the towns and schools are able to come to agreement.

The four towns voted on the school budget proposal in simultaneous Town Meetings Monday night. Leyden rejected the budget proposal outright. Bernardston and Warwick voted to approve reduced amounts — which has the legal effect of rejecting the request. Only Northfield approved the school district’s request.

When a school district fails to establish a budget in time for the start of the fiscal year July 1, the state Department of Education imposes a monthly budget, calculated as one-twelfth of the district’s budget from the previous year. The state then gives the towns until Dec. 1 to agree on a budget with the school; otherwise the state will determine the budget itself.

“Most of the budget stalemates that we deal with are resolved over the summer,” said state Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson. “It’s very frequent that we have to set a one-twelfth budget. It’s less frequent that we actually get to Dec. 1.”

If Dec. 1 comes and there is no budget, the state typically starts with the district’s original request, then works with the superintendent and school committee to update the numbers, Wulfson said.

The towns have no choice in accepting or rejecting this state-imposed budget. Their only decision will be in how to allocate the money, which will be done through Town Meeting, Wulfson said. The education commissioner will take input from town officials, Wulfson said.

“Bottom line is, the district will keep in operation, the commissioner will set a budget if the towns don’t, and business will keep going on,” Wulfson said.

Modifying the budget

The two towns that amended the requested amounts did so knowing that their amendments would invalidate the whole request.

The move was meant as a statement from the towns to the School Committee about what kind of a budget the selectboards and finance committees would have been willing to support. Per a joint meeting of the selectboards and finance committees last week, the amended numbers reflect what the budget would have been if the money saved by closing Leyden’s Pearl Rhodes Elementary School had been given to the towns, rather than re-invested in the schools.

“This is our chance to say something positive,” Warwick Finance Committee Chairwoman Diana Noble told Town Meeting voters Monday night. “It’s a show vote.”

Not everyone at the meeting agreed with the premise of the vote. Warwick resident and School Committee member Sue O’Reilly-McRae said that the closure was understood as a way to keep the district “afloat,” not as a way to save the towns money.

Further altering the requested amount, Bernardston and Warwick voted not to pay their portions of Superintendent Jon Scagel’s salary.

Like the amendments, the Town Meeting articles on whether to pay the superintendent’s salary were not expected to actually withhold Scagel’s paychecks but to send a message to the School Committee. In February, the School Committee and Scagel signed a contract for five years with annual raises starting the second year.

Town finance committees and selectboards later complained that the deal was overly generous, given Pioneer’s financial situation, and that it would prevent Pioneer from pursuing meaningful cost-cutting collaborations with other school districts — such as sharing administrative services — for at least five years.

“We are sending a very plain message,” Warwick Selectboard Chairman Doc Pruyne told Town Meeting voters Monday. “We are not behind this contract.”

The Department of Education’s opinion is that the contract is legally valid, and that the towns cannot reverse it by forcing the district into the one-twelfth budget,” Wulfson said.

Earlier this spring, the town selectboards wrote to the Department of Education, asking for some override of the superintendent’s contract, citing that Pioneer is under state oversight due to its financial situation.

The education commissioner’s opinion is that there was some ambiguity as to whether the state oversight went into effect before or after the contract was signed in February. So while it may be possible to challenge the contract, the department advises against turning the dispute into a costly legal battle, Wulfson said.

“From the department’s standpoint, the contract is valid. It will be funded either through the towns’ vote or through the commissioner’s budget,” Wulfson said. “We would hope that none of the towns spend resources or time trying to contest the legality of the contract.”

 

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ex 261.


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