An open letter to all Rehoboth Citizens,
Recently many questions have been asked and much has been written on social media concerning school and town funding. Unfortunately, much of what has been said and written is tainted by misinformation. Without ascribing any motives to the dissemination of improper information, the Board of Selectmen is concerned that the present level of discourse operates to deflect the conversation away from finding a sustainable solution to the situation we repeatedly find ourselves.
This is not a binary issue of Town versus School. This is not a new issue; nor is it a simple issue to understand or resolve. There are multiple levels of government, stakeholders and constituencies that need to be considered, and each has a voice and a responsibility to contribute in finding a sustainable solution.
At its simplest, there are two major sources for defining and executing the operation of a regional school district – State and Local. The Commonwealth codifies the methodology in Massachusetts General Law and the regulations and policies promulgated by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). At the Local level, we have a Regional School Agreement that has been accepted by the voters in Rehoboth and Dighton. It is then the responsibility of the elected members of the School Committee to ensure the Agreement is followed and to provide financial and management oversight of the school district administration.
It should be noted that neither the Board of Selectmen nor the Finance Committee of either town has review or decision making authority for the school budgets or the administration of the district. The School Committee is 100% responsible for what is included and what is not included in the budget and the management of the district.
Unfortunately, throughout Massachusetts, the regional school district concept is broken. This is not an offhanded remark. One need not conduct too much independent research to see regional school districts are in severe distress across the Commonwealth, and we all know what has been happening right here at home. We believe the School Committee has failed its fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers of both towns by failing to provide strong financial and management oversight of the district administration. The lack of transparency in the budgeting process is only one example of this failure.
From the Commonwealth we need an end to “unfunded mandates” for both Education and General Government. Additionally, we need the Commonwealth to deliver on commitments made to communities regarding the level of reimbursement towns and the schools were promised to support services. We also need the Legislature to address the underlying inequities of the statutory assessment method imposed on the taxpayers in regional school districts. Finally, we need the Commonwealth to address the overall inadequacies of education funding through the lens of what is truly in the best interest of the students and not be swayed by special interest groups and lobbyists. Education happens in a classroom between a teacher and a child. We must ensure the majority of money allocated for education finds its way into classrooms and related activities so teachers can teach, coaches can coach, and children can learn. As Selectmen, we have no more control over the final vote of the Legislature than any other individual reading this letter; however, we all have the opportunity to voice our concerns and opinions to our elected officials. The Selectmen have expressed our concerns and we are confident both Senator Feeney and Representative Howitt have heard our position on this and other related issues.
Locally, we must focus our time and effort on finding a solution within the framework of the existing legislation. The existing Regional Agreement is outdated and in many instances not be adhered to by the School Committee. Despite the considerable time and effort expended in an attempt to negotiate a fair and equitable amended agreement to address the many changes in the education system, we appear to be at an impasse. The issues preventing agreement are substantial and, at this point, it may make more sense to first ask the voters if they want to remain in a regional school district and, if so, negotiate a new agreement which can then go through the approval process at Town Meeting.
A fair and equitable allocation of funds above the amount determined by the Commonwealth is essential if we are to break the yearly cycle of never-ending Town Meetings, Elections, and now “tent meetings”. We believe this can be accomplished in one of two ways. Dighton and Rehoboth can adopt a fair and equitable Regional School Agreement where (1) each town pay the total actual cost of their Pre K-8th grade; (2) the cost of operating the high school is split by each town’s student population in the high school, and (3) all central office and districtwide expenditures allocated on a 50/50 basis between Rehoboth and Dighton. Bottom line – each town pays its fair share. This approach is fully compliant with all State laws, regulations, and policies. An alternative is to withdraw Rehoboth’s Pre K-8th grade from the district and to operate a regional high school. This is the way Rehoboth and Dighton operated prior to the formation of the regional school district. In any event, the status quo is unsustainable and unacceptable as represented by this year’s school budget and the assessment to each member town. The total budget for the Regional School District is $45,384,515. The total amount assessed to the taxpayers of Rehoboth is $19,529,656. The total amount assessed to the taxpayers of Dighton is $10,353,473. Rehoboth taxpayers are being asked to pay $11,751 / per student and Dighton taxpayers are being asked to pay $8,838 / per student. Is this fair? Is this equitable?
On May 28th, voters at the Rehoboth Annual Town appropriated $18,970,859 to fund the schools. The School Committee refused to accept the vote of the people and without further meaningful consideration voted to increase the Town Meeting appropriation by $558,797 and compel the Town to reconsider this issue. This required the Town to convene a Special Town Meeting in July at substantial cost to the Town. Over 1,000 voters attended the Special Town Meeting. The Motion put forth by the Selectmen and the Finance Committee again approved the appropriation of $18,970,859 and also approved the appropriation of an additional $558,797, contingent upon passage of a Proposition 2 1/2 override. The assessment, as submitted by the School Committee, was therefore approved by an overwhelming majority of Town Meeting. Furthermore, with this vote, the School Committee and School Administration now have been afforded the opportunity to educate the public and rally support for the additional appropriation.
Notwithstanding the overwhelming support of Town Meeting voters, two days after the conclusion of the Special Town Meeting the School Committee took action to ignore the will of the people and voted to move forward to schedule a “tent meeting”. This is a blatant attempt to subvert the democratic process and bypass the opportunity for all registered voters of Rehoboth to vote on this matter in an upcoming election. Further, scheduling a premature “tent meeting” would allow residents of one town to determine how much the residents of another town must pay and what services they may have. It is disappointing that the school committee is attempting to interfere with the authority of the town meeting and election process. Of utmost disappointment is the fact that two of the votes to convene the meeting came from people who were elected by the citizens of Rehoboth to represent them.
The Rehoboth Board of Selectmen has heard the voice of the voters. After consultation with legal counsel, there can be little doubt that the actions of the School Committee violate statutes pertaining to regional school budgeting. We consider any further action by the School Committee to convene a joint meeting of Rehoboth and Dighton as illegal. The Board is committed to exhausting all procedural and legal actions to protect Rehoboth’s home rule authority in this and all matters that directly impact Rehoboth citizens.
It is our sincere hope and desire that the School Committee rethinks its position and decides to accept the will of the voters. To prevent the expense, disruption and acrimony that would result from legal action we encourage the School Committee to accept the appropriation as voted and direct its efforts to garnering support for approval of the override. Proceeding in this manner will provide a budget for FY20; thereby eliminating the need for the one-twelfth budget and clear the path for all sports and after school activities to be funded.
As always, the Rehoboth Board of Selectmen is ready to engage in meaningful dialogue to bring about a fair and equitable resolution.
The Rehoboth Board of Selectmen