Ashfield TM voters pass education hike despite deficit concerns at Mohawk Trail

Staff Writer
Published: 5/5/2019 4:26:05 PM

ASHFIELD — Rising education costs yielded an hour of debate — and palpable frustration — at the Annual Town Meeting Saturday. 

Eventually, the town approved the education budget, $2.8 million in fiscal 2020. A majority of this amount, $2.4 million, is directed to Mohawk Trail Regional School District — a jump of $130,000 or 6 percent from the current year. The remainder is for vocational education. 

Finance Committee Chair Ted Murray expressed some doubts about Mohawk Trail’s budget trajectory over the years, saying it is “ever increasing” in spite of dwindling enrollment. He suggested the town become more involved in writing Mohawk’s budget. 

“We need to take perhaps a stronger hand in advising and working with the superintendent to see what we can do to help,” Murray said.

A flurry of questions were raised about recent news that Mohawk Trail District will finish fiscal 2019 with a deficit of $700,000. This deficit will not impact Ashfield’s budget in 2019 or 2020 as the district will cover the shortfall with savings from its revolving account, according to Superintendent Michael Buoniconti. 

The deficit, discovered by Buoniconti in January, occurred when roughly $1 million in salaries and other costs were mistakenly excluded from fiscal 2019 budget, he said last month. A series of “expected costs” totaling $564,956 were not added to the budget, including special education out-of-district tuition, building and grounds costs, one paraprofessional salary, central office salaries, mid-year contract increases and some phone costs. In addition, the equivalent of 11.07 full-time new position salaries adding up to $459,984 were not included in the fiscal 2019 budget.

Buoniconti said he was able to shrink the deficit by $487,230 by cutting “miscellaneous line items” and making salary reductions, plus using money from Hawlemont Regional School tuition, state rural school aid and benefits. Despite these efforts, the district is set to finish the year with a $700,000 deficit.

Buoniconti was present at Saturday’s meeting, fielding numerous questions posed by concerned residents. He called the deficit an “aberration,” saying he finished every budget year since he became Mohawk’s superintendent in fiscal 2006 “in the black,” even able to save some money. And due to these accrued savings, he said, the district can pay off its deficit using this money without making additional requests to the towns.

When asked by residents what his role was in causing the deficit, Buoniconti said he was not “abdicating” any blame — while adding that it isn’t his job to “duplicate” the role of business administrator.

“It is not accurate to assume the superintendent controls everything,” Buoniconti said. 

Selectboard Chair Tom Carter said while he is troubled by the deficit, he is reassured by Mohawk’s ability to pay for its mistake without town money. 

Ashfield School Committee member Jennifer Markens pointed out that one committee seat is vacant, encouraging townspeople to run to address concerns raised in the meeting. 

Town budget

The town approved a $5.5 million budget for fiscal 2020 — a jump of $400,000 or 8 percent from the current year. Ashfield’s tax rate is $18.18 per $1,000 valuation for fiscal 2020, up from $17.16 this year. This averages $4,610 in municipal taxes per annum, up $258 or 5.9 percent from the current year.

Every budget item was passed by the town. They are: government expenses for $453,836; public safety, $248,304; public works, $689,036; health and human services, $53,879; culture and recreational expenses, $91,342; debt services, $204,671; intergovernmental assessments, $55,867; employee benefits, $192,389; ambulance services, $87,766; sewer fund, $275,985; Broadband funding, $204,922; retirement funding, $1,940; revolving funds for dog licenses, $5,000; revolving funds for parks, $3,000; revolving funds for library, $2,900; reserves, $3,000.

Funding for capital projects of $325,000 was also approved by the town. The two largest items are $140,000 for a new highway loader and $75,000 for transfer station improvements. Other capital funds ranging from $25,000 to $6,000, went toward: town hall repairs and maintenance, bridge work, a fire new pumper or tanker truck, a police cruiser, library projects and veterans memorial.

Denial of license or permit

The town opposed an item that would deny residents local licenses and permits if they do not pay any taxes, fees, assessments or any other municipal charge. A similar article that followed, to create a town bylaw on the matter, was passed over. 

Citizens petitions

All three articles submitted by a citizens petition were passed by the town.

■— The town approved a bylaw to regulate door-to-door canvassing and solicitation. This bylaw requires individuals or organizations seeking to canvas or solicit money to first apply for a permit with the police chief and must not engage in the activity until the permit is approved. The bylaw includes an application fee of $20 for individuals and $50 for organizations, with penalties of $300 for any violations.

■— The town voted to urge state and federal legislators to limit the influence of money in politics, in a citizens petition submitted by Mohawk Co-Principal Lynn Dole. The resolution describes itself as a “non-partisan grassroots movement.”

■— The town approved an item to express support for a state bill submitted that if passed would create a special commission concerning the seal and motto of Massachusetts. The state seal depicts a Native American person and is accompanied by the motto: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.” 

The resolution says it seeks to change the state seal and motto because Native Americans “have long suffered the many abuses of racism, the appropriation of their symbols for public schools and sports teams, the diminution and pollution of their ancestral lands and the encroachment of their cultural lifeways.” 

Other articles

■The town approved stipends for elected officials ranging from $150 for the town moderator to $1,250 for Board of Assessors members.

■Voters supported a state law permitting the town to close on Saturdays.

■Finally, the town passed an item to permit the Selectboard to enter into a 10-year contract with the option of a five-year extension with a recycling vendor selected by state Department of Environmental Protection through a competitive bid process.

Reach Grace Bird at gbird@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 280. 


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