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Hancock Town Clerk Linda Burdick collects ballots for one of three secret ballot votes at Monday's meeting.
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About a quarter of the town's registered voters attended Monday's meeting.

Hancock Town Meeting OKs School Budget, Rejects Land Deal

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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HANCOCK, Mass. — Town meeting Monday sided with the School Committee on the education budget and against the Board of Selectmen on that and two other issues.

In a meeting that lasted nearly three hours and featured three secret ballot votes, the town voted to raise and appropriate $488,494 to cover town expenses and $1.4 million to cover school expenses.

The $1,399,814 school appropriation was the subject of considerable debate, much of which centered around the decision of the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee to break the School Committee's request into two separate warrant articles.

The Town Report included an insert purporting to offer voters "corrections" on the School Committee request — lowering the operating expense warrant article to $1.27 million and putting $132,840 into a warrant article designation for tuition and transportation.

The figures in the two revised articles would have equaled the $1.4 million figure, but School Committee members and other residents argued from the floor that the school's operating expenses should be included in one article.

Selectmen Chairman Sherman Derby told the voters that he believed the school department was seeking an "exorbitant" increase over its fiscal 2016 appropriation. The selectmen decided to break out two of the line items that saw significant increases — tuition for education beyond the town's elementary school and transportation — and put them in an article that specified, "If not used, the appropriated sum will be returned to the town."

"It is a large jump, but we feel we're ethically bound to give you a real number," School Committee member Melissa Leab said. "We're telling you the school needs $1.33 million. … It's hard to compare apples to apples year to year when tuitions are out of our hands. We have children move in, and we have children move out.

"If the children's census changes in the upper grade, the money will come back."

A couple of town residents joined Derby from the floor in complaining about rising education costs, commenting that the school budget is about 75 percent of the town's total budget while enrollment in the elementary school has declined. One resident said that by splitting the tuition and transportation appropriation into a separate warrant article, the town could keep the School Committee from spending that money elsewhere if it did not need all that it requested.

But several residents also rose to defend the School Committee's original request.

"Not to sound accusatory, but why does the Board of Selectmen know what it will cost to run the school better than the people we appointed to run that?" Barry Grauman asked.

"It's not that we don't have confidence in their numbers," Derby replied. "It's an exorbitant amount. That's a 20 percent increase."

Interim School Superintendent William Cameron told voters that they were getting their money's worth for education, noting that Hancock Elementary School students' performance on the commonwealth's standardized tests indicate it is one of the few Level One schools in the county.

Cameron also defended the School Committee's funding request for FY17.

"The tuition costs are associated with the schools [students] go after Hancock Elementary School," he said. "Although those [tuitions] are negotiated, there are increases. There is really very little to be done about that. As a town without a middle school or a high school, Hancock is obligated to provide education through the 12th grade."

In the end, a motion to amend Article 16, the school appropriation, lowering it to the selectmen's "corrected" figure of $1.27 million, failed on a vote of 56-50. The school appropriation as originally printed, for $1.4 million, passed by a margin of 83-49.


 

The town meeting was attended by 129 of the town's 519 registered voters, a 25 percent turnout.

The evening began with a direct challenge to the Board of Selectmen's verbiage in the warrant.

Article 2, a relatively benign action to accept the reports of the Selectmen and town officers as printed in the Town Report, drew an amendment from the floor.

Marjorie Feathers rose to point out that the report as printed specified that some articles would ask whether "the Town will vote to raise and appropriate the sum of X or any other lower sum …"

Feathers called the phrasing undemocratic and asked for an amendment specifying that the town "rule that in future Town Reports, the traditional words of 'any other sum' or ‘any other amount' rather than 'any other lower sum' or 'any other lower amount' be used in this report."

Derby defended the use of the phrase "any other lower sum" in the 2016 Town Report by pointing out that at the 2015 annual town meeting, "someone jumped up from the School Committee and asked to raise their budget by $60,000."

Feathers argued that the $60,000 increase in question was defeated and that townspeople were smart enough not to overspend without being hamstrung by restrictive language in the warrant.

"I do know that for the last 90 years, no use of 'lower sum' or 'lower amount' has been associated with warrant articles," said Feathers, a member of the town's Historical Commission who said she researched the question.

"If the Selectmen or the Finance Committee are allowed to add crucial wording to stifle this kind of town meeting democratic freedom … what is the sense of anyone bothering to attend this government event? Are we here only to rubber stamp their decisions, or to have a chance to present good ideas to make our town a better place?"

Derby and others from the floor countered that there were residents who relied on the printed Town Report to decide whether to attend town meeting, and if the spending figures were raised dramatically, those residents would be disenfranchised. No one in the lengthy Article 2 debate pointed out that the same residents also could be disenfranchised if the spending figures were lowered dramatically after the warrant was printed.

Feathers' amendment passed, 61-34, and the amended Article 2 passed by acclimation.

The third major controversy of the night involved a proposed land deal that would have allowed the Board of Selectmen to sell 278 acres of town-owned land and receive at least $1.1 million to help build a new Town Hall.

The plan required two separate warrant articles. The first, Article 18, authorized the board to put the acreage out for bid. The second, Article 19, asked if the town would accept a gift of $1.1 million to be used to replace the historic but inadequate Town Hall on Route 43.

A couple of residents objected to the structure of the arrangement, which appeared to be more of a purchase than a "gift," and said the articles were posted in the wrong order: if the "donors" wanted to give the town money, they should do so with or without the land being on the table.

Other residents objected to the idea of the town selling off town-owned property, known as the Jones Farm. One noted that the parcel in question was specifically recommended by the board in the Town Report as an area that "can be used by town residents for hiking and camping if the residents so chose."

Still other residents questioned whether the town needed a million-dollar Town Hall, especially when the town office is open four hours a week plus two hours on the first Saturday of every month. One resident noted that a year ago, the town formed a study committee to look at whether renovations were needed at the elementary school and asked if a similar study committee had been formed to look at Town Hall.

Derby, who had a business relationship with the prospective purchaser, sat out the discussion and was not part of the negotiation that produced the warrant article.

Town Counsel Jeremia Pollard of the Lee firm Hannon Lerner defended the donation/sale arrangement, saying it was all above board and had been negotiated between himself and counsel for the prospective buyer. Furthermore, the town's counsel argued, the $1.1 million figure was above the property's appraised value, and the land would be put to bid through the commonwealth's procurement process, so if another buyer offered more than the $1.1 million suggested by the donor, the town could see a bigger windfall.

The voters thought otherwise, defeating the article to authorize selling the land by a margin of 120-11.


Tags: school budget,   town budget,   town meeting 2016,   

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