Four votes in one night: Towns strategize about Pioneer school budget

  • Pioneer Valley Regional School

Staff Writer
Published: 6/11/2019 10:58:05 PM

BERNARDSTON — Town officials are serious about rejecting the Pioneer Valley Regional School District’s budget proposal and have concocted a plan to do so through their upcoming special Town Meetings — all on one night.

All four Town Meetings are at 7 p.m. on Monday. They were intended to give the School Committee extra time to work on its 2019 to 2020 budget, after the closure of Leyden’s Pearl Rhodes Elementary School complicated the planning process. The school budget is the only major item on any of the warrants for Bernardston, Northfield, Warwick and Leyden.

Holding the four Town Meetings at the same time was proposed by the Leyden Selectboard as a way of guaranteeing each town equal influence in approving the school budget. Passage of the school budget requires Town Meeting approval by at least three of the four member towns. If three approve and the fourth rejects, the fourth is still required to accept it. If two towns reject the Pioneer assessment, then the budget fails.

Because the normally scheduled Annual Town Meetings are often spread across a period of several weeks, the last meeting can be in a situation of accepting the school budget by default. Holding all four votes at the same time prevents that.

The plan

The plan — which the towns’ selectboards, finance committees and municipal administrators came up with at a joint meeting on Monday in Bernardston — is to amend the school district’s requested amount to a lower number that town officials feel is appropriate.

While the amendment itself is not illegal, it will not legally change the school’s budget. The only decision the towns have is to accept or reject the school’s request. Approval of a different number constitutes a rejection. So even if all four towns approve their amended numbers, the school budget fails.

“It is, in fact, for show,” Northfield Town Administrator Andrea Llamas said. “It has no legal effect.”

The non-legal effect is to tell the School Committee that the towns want the money from closing Pearl Rhodes for themselves, and that it shouldn’t have been reinvested in the schools. Closing Pearl Rhodes was estimated to save the district $188,544, according to district finance documents referenced by the town officials at their Monday meeting. Of that total amount, $141,300 was put back into the schools. The remaining $47,244 was given back to the towns, via reductions in their assessed costs for the 2019 to 2020 year.

So the new, non-legal amounts will be calculated as each town’s portion of a hypothetical school budget of $14,033,666 — what the budget would have been, the town officials said, if the total Pearl Rhodes savings had been given to the towns. In reality, Pioneer’s budget proposal is $14,223,865.

Also non-legally, the move would clearly communicate an intention.

“Courts have found again and again that you can’t determine the intent of a Town Meeting,” Warwick Town Coordinator David Young said. “But, by God, this time you can.”

At Town Meeting

Come the Monday Town Meetings, if the town officials go through with their plan, they will attempt to amend the school budget assessments from Pioneer’s requested numbers to their preferred numbers. Voters on Monday will then be asked to accept the amendment and then to vote on the new numbers.

If at least two towns reject the budget — either by voting against it or by approving amended numbers — Pioneer will be forced to go into the 2020 fiscal year, starting in July, with no budget.

In that case, the state Department of Education would impose a “one-twelfth budget” on a month-by-month basis, so called because it is calculated as one-twelfth of the previous year’s expenditures.

The towns wouldn’t save a significant amount of money by doing this. If the one-twelfth budget were extended for an entire year, the savings for Northfield, as the largest town in the district, would come to a grand total of $532, compared to Pioneer’s requested amount, said Pioneer Finance Director Tanya Gaylord. Bernardston would save $394, Warwick $102 and Leyden $71.

In reality, the savings would be even lower, because the one-twelfth budget will not be maintained for a full 12 months. The state will give the towns and school district until Dec. 1 to come to some agreement on a budget. If they can’t do that, the state will then simply impose a budget that it deems appropriate. The towns will be required to fund it, regardless of any Town Meeting decisions.

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




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