CHESHIRE, Mass. — A citizens' petition aimed to keep Cheshire Elementary School open could push out budgeting for the regional school district into the summer.
Jeffrey Grandchamp, the district's attorney, on Monday night explained the consequences of the proposed amendment to the district agreement that the Adams-Cheshire Regional School Committee is now required to relay to the towns.
He said the amendment would push out the budget process even further.
"From a timing perspective, the petition is coming rather late," Grandchamp said.
The School Committee was handed Monday the Cheshire Citizens for Education petition with certified signatures that will ask both towns to amend the agreement and allow Cheshire to increase its assessment to fund the operation of Cheshire School without creating a proportional increase in Adams.
Grandchamp walked the committee through the amendment process and its ramifications.
He said if the amendment makes it past both town meetings, it would then head to the state Department of Education, where it would have to be approved by the commissioner. If the commissioner does not approve it, it fails.
Grandchamp said he does not know if the Cheshire Citizens for Education worked with the DOE, but noted that when amendments are made to regional agreements, the process should be done in "lockstep" the state.
"My concern with any amendment is that if it hasn't got at least some blessing from the DOE before it goes to the towns, it will be very difficult to persuade the commissioner to accept it," he said. "And you can't thereafter change it you have to go back through the whole process."
Should the amendment be given final approval, Cheshire would still have to allocate a new budget amount that would consider the operation of the building, critical maintenance capital purchases and positions that were taken out during the consolidation.
Grandchamp said he anticipated the earliest the district could get together a budget with committed funds from Cheshire is early August. This depends on Cheshire being able to allocate or raise the needed amount and a quick turnaround time from the DOE.
This brings the district closer to state deadlines to pass a budget.
Superintendent Robert Putnam said his current charge to consolidate the district to Hoosac Valley High School and C.T. Plunkett Elementary in Adams is a lengthy involved process and delaying it would cause issues in the transitionary period.
He said to reverse course in August, weeks or days before school starts, would be nearly impossible.
"This is very big enterprise and I think the most recent comparable activities were when all the schools were reorganized in the Hoosac Valley project," Putnam said. "This is actually bigger ... and I think the request of the petition and the transition to a pre-K-through-[Grade] 3, a 4-through-7 and an 8-through-12 are mutually exclusive. I bring that up because I am not positive I can pull it off."
Grandchamp said even at this point, the School Committee does not have to vote to reopen the school. The amendment just allows Cheshire to pay more under two circumstances: the school must be open and it must house pre-K through Grade 5.
He said if the school does not house the grades mentioned in the petition, Cheshire cannot expend more money.
"I think it would be a fair reading for the town of Cheshire to say legally the only way is if those grades are there," he said. "It may not be the town it could be a taxpayer ... it's just those grades and it is one of my concerns from a legal perspective."
The district had voted to move Grades 4 and 5 to Hoosac Valley; if Cheshire had been kept open, the grades would have been split between the schools rather than having two separate schools with the same grades.
Also, the amendment would stay in the agreement until it is revised again. This means in coming years, the School Committee would have to create a budget internally and a second one that has additional funds needed to operate Cheshire Elementary school.
"You would almost have to do two budgets every single year," Grandchamp said. "One with what the cost of the district would be without Cheshire and then what cost over and above that number, which would solely be connected to Cheshire Elementary School."
He added that this may mean in the future negotiations assurances to Cheshire that only that school is being funded and to Adams that it is not funding anything over its agreed upon amount.
Grandchamp said the amendment does not lock Cheshire into paying any unexpected costs and if something breaks at Cheshire Elementary School, the town is not "required" to fund the repair. They are "allowed" to.
School Committee member Darlene Rodowicz asked if it was possible for the petitioners to tighten up the language and resubmit the article.
Grandchamp said the group would have to get a lot of signatures to make any changes.
"At this point the petition is irrevocable and the district has to pass this on to the towns," he said. "I think they need two new petitions: one to redact that one that was just submitted and another one with a new amendment."
The School Committee had the option to attach a recommendation to the article but decided to make no comment.
Per the district agreement, an amendment can only be made if two-thirds of the School Committee votes to send the articles to the towns or if it is presented with a petition with signatures from 10 percent of the registered voters in one of the member towns.
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