Cheshire Board Votes to Recommend Hoosac Valley Budget
ADAMS, Mass. — The Selectmen last week voted to recommend the Hoosac Valley Regional School District's $21 million budget after some pressure on school officials to defend the spending plan.
Superintendent Aaron Dean said he felt "blindsided" after hearing that the board might not support the fiscal 2024 budget.
"I thought we had a really good meeting six weeks ago," he said, referring to the March 28 meeting with the board. "I really don't know where that came from."
Selectwoman Michelle Francesconi said the board had not made any official vote on the budget.
Cheshire's combined assessment for education and transportation is $2,758,726, up $31,095 or a fraction of a percent over this year. The town's assessment to the high school project is $189,736, bringing its overall contribution to the regional school district up by about $5,000 over this year. Adams total contribution will be $6,526,955.
"We are a rural district with urban issues. We're over 60 percent low income as a district and there are a lot of challenges that come with that," Dean said at Tuesday's meeting. "I feel like we've worked so hard to put together what I think is a very good budget for the district, a very responsible budget for the district."
School Committee member Michael Henault, a Cheshire representative, said he was surprised and disappointed on hearing the board's concerns. The School Committee had spent 2 1/2 hours going through the budget line by line and questioned Dean "pretty aggressively" on increases and decreases. He said members of the Adams Finance Committee had attended but no one from Cheshire had.
"I think he had really good answers," Henault said. "This wasn't a budget that we took lightly and we really felt at the end of that meeting that it was fiscally responsible."
He pointed out that towns' contributions above foundation has been consistently below 15 percent, among the lowest in the state when the average is 25 percent.
Dean noted the addition of staffing and administrative positions, including a dean of curriculum, some which is being made possible by the district meeting the Student Opportunities Act threshold. The district's Chapter 70 state education aid is up 7.7 percent, or $807,327 this coming year.
Other positions have been supported by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and, like other school districts, Hoosac Valley is approaching the "fiscal cliff" when ESSER III funds will run out. Some positions are being shift into the budget this coming year in recognition of that.
"Although we're here to discuss numbers, it's the quality of the student that's coming out that are more concerning," said Selectman Ray Killeen. "If you're going to ask me for my sweat and blood, then I think the product that you're presenting, I don't think to the community but to the individual themselves is the best you can provide."
Board members asked how they would be able to measure the progress that the district is making.
Dean reminded the board that he'd come into a "struggling" school system and that it takes time to rebuild an organizational structure to ensure that staff get the professional development and support they need. Enrollment has largely stabilized, he said, and the district is putting in new career pathways.
"We're working on the very things you're talking about," he said. "I think we can see it in our graduation rates. I think we'll be able to see it on our performance on MCAS. I think we'll be able to see it in our absenteeism data.
"We're looking at a lot of students who, candidly, are not engaged. We're looking at programming to increase that engagement and systems and structures that will help us re-engage with families."
Most turnaround plans have a 3-5 year range, said Henault, and that Dean is developing an organizational structure that can promote change and build teaching capacity.
"If we're having the same conversation in three years once those structures are in place, then I think that there's obviously a bigger problem," he said.
"I support the overall budget, but I would like to see is something like that shared more broadly as far as tangible metrics that are in place and are locked in place that can be looked at next year and the year after that," Chair Shawn McGrath said. "I also think it would be beneficial to have a three-year rolling budget so we can see where we're heading."
The boards referred to the potential of merging with another community as a cost-saving measure. Selectman Ronald DeAngelis said he'd like to see a plan in place if goals aren't being met.
"Because year after year, you keep investing money and it ain't gonna work, you need to cut our losses early," he said. "It's just the reality ... I think that we need to have that real-time level that we try our best to get there, the funds are there, they make it happen, or that we don't reach it, we have this plan that we're going to execute."
Selectwoman Michele Francesconi said the board had not made any officials vote on the budget. She motioned to recommend and it passed with member Jason Levesque voting against.
The two boards also discussed the potential for a school resource officer. One obstacle is that the district has two schools in two different towns. Police Chief Michael Alibozek said he has had talks with Adams Chief Scott Kelley about a joint agreement. Officials thought they should focus on Hoosac Valley High School in Cheshire for the moment and Dean said they are working on grants to continue the program.
Alibozek said the school administration has been trying to handle disruptive behaviors but that a school resource officer can provide a level of respect and safety for students who are having difficulties at home or being bullied at school. He said an officer who was the recent career fair asked students about what they wanted.
"He said the primary things that kids were telling him is a safer school because they can't go to the bathrooms because there's kids in there vaping," said the chief. "They can't walk down the hall because there's kids causing problems ...
"And the goal to get better kids out of that school is to make a safer school."
The board also talked about gauging voters' feeling on a new fire station through a non-binding resolution on the town warrant. There was some concern it would only reach a small portion of the population and could be miscontrued if there was a lack of information. Members are considering whether to hold a public forum that would allow more participation and information.