CHESHIRE, Mass. — Town meeting rejected the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District's $19.2 million budget and shot down articles aimed at keeping Cheshire Elementary School open.
More than 200 voters filled the school's auditorium Monday night for a 3 1/2 marathon town meeting mostly focused on the school and the regional school budget.
Before hitting a block of citizens' petition articles aimed at amending the district agreement to allow Cheshire to independently fund the school slated to close this fall, town meeting held the town's budget article in limbo for two hours and ultimately rejected the district's budget with an 115-86 vote.
The fiscal 2018 school budget is based on closing Cheshire School and adding personnel considered critical to advancing the school's academic scores.
"My strong feeling is that the people of Cheshire want the right thing and I don't think we want to see the downward spiral of the school district but the decision that was made I believe was a mistake," Advisory Committee member John Tremblay said.
"We are trying to slow this process down and give us a chance to evaluate the situation. There is no reason to close this school and there are other options."
Tremblay also blamed the town of Adams for dictating the direction the budget and added that the agreement needs to be changed so Adams does not hold the bulk of the power.
"We are basically held hostage we can't even withdraw from this agreement without Adams saying its OK," he said. "Cheshire is the redheaded stepchild and Adams has been wielding their power over this budget for years … we have been taken advantage of."
Cheshire's representative on the School Committee, Adam Emerson, said although no one likes closing the elementary school, not passing a budget would do more damage than good.
"This is the budget we need and this is the budget that is going to get our district functioning again so we are not losing students," Emerson said. "I understand people are upset … I am not happy but don't confuse capitulation on this budget with complacency. We are going to fight for the budget that is best for our kids in Cheshire and this is how we get started."
Superintendent Robert Putnam told town meeting prior to the vote that if the budget is rejected he would have to report to the state by Thursday of the failure or imminent failure of a budget by July 1.
If a budget is not in place by July 1, the district would be reverted to an interim monthly budget based on this fiscal year's budget. The district would have to operate under this budget until a new one can be passed.
Putnam said this would mean an immediate loss of $280,000, which would mean the loss of needed student support positions.
The School Committee can resubmit the same budget or change it and if both towns cannot agree on a budget, it will go to a districtwide vote.
He said if they still cannot come to an agreement and there is no budget in place by Dec. 1, the state will take over the district.
"I believe education has less to do with a building and that a good education comes from teachers, parents and families," he said. "I recognize there is a desire to turn the budget down but I don't know how this is going to help us improve and I would like to see it thrive and prosper."
Cheshire's School Committee representative Darlene Rodowicz said although she fought to keep Cheshire Elementary School open, keeping open three schools is not financially sustainable. She said Adams is reaching its levy ceiling and Cheshire may soon face the same issues.
"I don't like how it was done but do we want to use the free cash we have in this town when we may only be saving a sinking ship that a year from now will be in the same situation?" she said. "I fought hard to keep Cheshire open but ... I realize have to think of the responsible adult in me that needs to make sure our children get the best education possible. It is not what town houses the building it is about what teachers we have and the depth of our curriculum."
She added that the proposed budget puts money directly into classrooms and that schools throughout the county are facing the same problem with decreasing population and enrollment.
Resident and former member of the Hoosac Valley High School building project committee Francis "Biggs" Waterman said realistically pushing more money into to district and keeping all three schools open is not sustainable.
"It is expensive to keep a school open and we need to have one elementary school and we need to put money into those facilities and educate our kids," he said. "I think the budget the School Committee put forth is best for our kids. It may not be the best for Cheshire, I agree, but it is best for the kids in our district."
He added that he felt it was not beneficial to pit Adams against Cheshire because they, too, endorsed the Hoosac Valley project and are equally as passionate about education.
Advisory Committee member E. Richard "Dick" Scholz said rejecting the budget would give Cheshire "leverage" against Adams and the school district and suggested that allowing the state to take over the school may be for the best.
"Our leverage goes away if we accept this budget if we vote the budget down we have a lot more leverage to try to get this thing fixed," he said. "I do not want to see the school closed, and I believe it is the wrong decision that will hurt the community ... and I believe if the district got into receivership by the state it might all get fixed."
Emerson disagreed and said he did not feel it was right to "gamble" with children's education.
"I agree with what you are saying but you are gambling with our children's education and that is not something I as an elected official am willing to do," he said. "I agree we need to reopen that agreement but we can't make a political decision when we need to make an educational one."
Town meeting first voted to table the budget but the vote failed to garner 2/3 of the vote. The second motion was to reject the town's $3.1 million assessment to the district, which passed 115-86.
Town meeting accepted the rest of the $5.9 million budget with two small $500 salary increases for the wire inspector and transfer station attendant.
Town meeting picked up speed and moved quicker through an interlude of free cash capital expenditure articles but bogged back down again at Article 10 and a series of citizens petition's aimed at amending the district agreement to allow Cheshire to independently fund its school without triggering a proportional increase in Adams.
The town's legal counsel, Edmund St. John III, told voters that even though he commended their efforts, Article 10 was legally "fatally flawed" and even if it made its way through Adams town meeting, it would most likely not be accepted by the state Department of Education.
He said the proponents of the article were informed in May by DOE that because the article has no actual amendment language in it and does not spell out a specific funding process, it would most likely be dead on arrival.
He added that the amendment does not force the School Committee to reopen the school or accept the funding.
Town meeting voted to make an amendment to the article that cleared up some language and stated that the town would be responsible for maintenance throughout the year, however, after the vote failed 54-62, the series of articles quickly lost steam.
Town meeting voted down Articles 11 and 12 that would siphon $300,000 from free cash and stabilization to fund the school.
Article 13, a last-ditch effort to appropriate $300,000 if Article 11 and 12 failed, could not even get a second.
Article 14, to allow outside fundraising on behalf of the school, was tabled. The only school-related article that passed was Article 15, which takes $100,000 from free cash to fund the maintenance of the closed building.
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