CHESHIRE, Mass. — The Selectmen are baffled by the complexity of a series of town meeting articles that would have to clear multiple hurdles to amend the regional school district agreement.
The Cheshire Citizens for Education group has place articles by petition on both the Adams and Cheshire town meeting warrants aimed at keeping Cheshire School open and independently funded by the town.
After hearing Town Counsel Edmund St. John III's opinion Tuesday on petition, the Selectmen sensed the entire initiative could send the budget process into a tailspin.
"I am really in a quandary and I don't know what to make of this and what we are going to do," Chairman Robert Ciskowski said. "There are just so many variables and options and we are very confused ... The more we get into it, the worse it gets."
By gathering more than 10 percent of the signatures of registered voters in Cheshire, the group was able to put the article that would allow Cheshire to increase its Adams-Cheshire Regional School District allocation without proportionally increasing Adams' share.
St. John III said the article must pass both town meetings and be approved by the state Department of Education. Until this happens, any increased allocation would trigger a proportional increase in Adams.
"There are a lot of twists in this," he said.
The town's attorney said this also affects the accompanying citizens' petition articles that asks Cheshire town meeting to use $300,000 from free cash and the reserve account to fund the operation of the school. If these were passed before the DOE approves the amendment, it would only increase Adams' share.
"Legally, the town can't transfer money in this way ... and each of those transfers violates the district agreement," he said. "The entire agreement has to be amended properly for this to take place."
He said this is coupled with the fact that the budget cannot be amended from the floor — it can only be approved or rejected.
Action can only be taken after the amendment is approved and the district can reform a budget with this increase. This would have to come before town meeting again in both towns.
St. John III said problems may also arise if both towns pass a new budget but town meeting does not vote to use the reserves to fund it.
"It is a very tricky issue because the town has to come up with the money and if the town were to withhold that payment, it can open up a whole can of worms," he said. "That could create issues. Even litigation issues between the town and the school district."
This could also send the town into an override situation, although this wording is not in the article language.
Further complicating the situation, Town Clerk Christine Emerson made mention that free cash can no longer be tapped after June 30, the end of the fiscal year. With Adams town meeting June 19 and the needed approval from the DOE, timelines may run out.
Ciskowski noted that the school district plans to start its move this summer, with Grades 4 and 5 relocating to Hoosac Valley High School and lower grades to Plunkett School in Adams, and a final decision could come as late as into next school year. He said it would not be easy to move everything back.
"They are going to start moving and setting up and it may create havoc if a week or two before school starts they have to come back," he said. "The timeline here is a little frightening and we don't know how this is going to work ... but if they never closed the school, none of this would have happened."
Even if the amendment makes it past all the obstacles the School Committee does not have to reopen the school or place pre-K through Grade 5 at Cheshire Elementary — which is a condition built into the language of the article that has to be met for Cheshire to be able to increase funding.
"This can clear everything and we can get all of the money and then go to the School Committee and they still can vote to close the school," Selectwoman Carol Francesconi said. "They can say no, no matter what the petition says."
St. John III agreed and said the amendment only creates a funding mechanism and at the end of the day it does not allow the towns to dictate where and how kids are educated.
Francesconi was also concerned that the town could allocate the $300,000 and the district could keep it without opening the school.
Selectman Edmund St. John IV said in no way are the board's comments a statement on the group's merits but just a fear that there was not enough time.
"There is just a lot procedural roadblocks given the language and what they presented us and the timing of everything," he said. "I know they did not have a lot of time to put this together but that's why they say you need few years to amend a district agreement."
Cheshire Citizens For Education member Jeremy McLain, who stopped by the meeting, said he appreciated the Selectmen giving him a heads up but the group still plans to fight for the school.
"I look at it this way," he said. "It is going to be a close timeline and tough on the district and tough on a lot of people but closing a school I think has a much bigger impact."
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