School Officials Claim Selectmen Underfunded Budget
Just days before a state takeover of the school district on December 1, Dighton-Rehoboth School Committee members are claiming the Rehoboth Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee underfunded the 2020 school budget.
In a November 18 letter to the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), committee chairperson Katherine Cooper said the district was working with a .66 percent increase. “The Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee are not being realistic to attempt to force the School Committee's acceptance of a negative one percent budget and $690,000 in cuts from the current 1/12 budget,” Cooper wrote.
Cooper said the original request was a 2.32 percent increase. The district reduced their request from $577,000 over the prior fiscal year's budget to $289,000 over. “We felt we had produced a reasonable budget at 2.32 percent considering the sports, activities, and contract increases caused a $1.2 million increase,” Cooper continued. The letter was signed by every school committee member except for George Solas and Richard Barrett, both from Rehoboth.
Rehoboth town officials are crying foul at the school committee’s charges. “The school committee letter demonstrates a lack of understanding of the Town Meeting process, a disregard of the facts, and a total lack of respect for the voice of the voters,” Schwall said via e-mail. In his letter to DESE, Schwall cited “the ever-increasing and unsustainable financial demands” from the school district.”
Voters rejected the FY20 budget at the October 29 town meeting and the district-wide meeting scheduled for November 2 was cancelled due to an incorrect budget figure on the warrant.
In a November 4 letter to School Superintendent Anthony Azar, Cooper, Rehoboth Selectmen Chairman Gerry Schwall, and Dighton Selectmen Chairman Kenneth Pacheco, DESE’s Associate Commissioner Jay Sullivan said if a budget is not accepted before December 1, DESE “shall establish a budget for the year and shall assume fiscal oversight of the district.”
Finance committee chairman Michael Deignan believes Cooper is misinformed about the budget process. Deignan explained the town does not pay for the budget, but an assessment, which is the portion of the expenses attributed to the town. “Their latest assessment of September 2019 represents a year over year increase of 7.81 percent, which, if approved by DESE, would leave the town a scant $75,000 from its additional revenue in FY20 with which to pay for increases in all the other services the town provides to its 12,000 residents,” Deignan said. “This disparity is a direct result of the financial mismanagement of the district by the administration and the School Committee, as is evidenced by their anomalous use of $1.25 million of their Excess and Deficiency funds in FY19 to balance their budget.”
Deignan disputed Cooper’s claim that the school district has suffered “repeated layoffs” in the last few years, while the town of Rehoboth has emerged unscathed. Cooper told DESE that town employees had received salary increases of 20 to 30 percent in a year. “The total number of employees in the Regional School District has steadily increased year after year, increasing by 183 from 2014 to 2018,” Deignan said, adding town employees have received a maximum three percent annual increase.
In the letter to DESE, Cooper also cited the expenses incurred by the school district as a result of a civil suit filed by the Rehoboth board of selectmen, who are alleging the district violated the terms of the regional school agreement. “We would also request that you consider the impact on our legal line now that we are being sued by the Board of Selectmen,” Cooper wrote. “Our Committee does not want to have to move money from students to fund a lawsuit that we think is senseless.”