State Takes Over Dighton-Rehoboth School District
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) assumed control of the Dighton-Rehoboth Regional School District on December 1.
In a November 4 letter to School Superintendent Anthony Azar, school committee chairperson Katherine Cooper, Rehoboth selectmen chairman Gerry Schwall, and Dighton selectmen chairman Kenneth Pacheco, DESE’s associate commissioner Jay Sullivan had warned if a budget was not accepted before December 1, DESE “shall establish a budget for the year and shall assume fiscal oversight of the district.”
“Once the department sets the final district budget for the year, the treasurer of the regional school district must calculate and certify to the member municipalities their respective assessments based on the statutory method,” Sullivan wrote. “The member communities will be obligated to appropriate their respective assessments based on this budget and make payments to the regional school district consistent with the payment schedule outlined in the regional school district agreement. This budget and the department’s fiscal oversight will remain in place until the end of the fiscal year or until the member towns have approved a budget for the subsequent fiscal year, whichever is later. It is important to note that this budget may be different than the interim “1/12th budget” under which the district is currently operating.”
Members of the Dighton-Rehoboth school committee criticized the Rehoboth board of selectmen and the finance committee for underfunding the 2020 budget. “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 in a letter to DESE.
Cooper noted 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. “I challenge you to find any school district with a lower percent increase,” School Superintendent Anthony Azar said. “Also, since (I became Superintendent) there have been no layoffs to the Town of Rehoboth's municipal workers and the town has been in better financial shape over the past five years then they portend to be.”
Azar noted the Rehoboth finance committee failed to include school committee members in their discussions, which resulted in the budget turmoil. “As they know, we have always gone into town meeting with a united front,” Azar said. “That unfortunately crumbled pretty quickly due to the town warrant being written by the Rehoboth (board of selectmen) and the Finance Committee not providing the town voters a chance to vote on our assessment number to the district. More importantly the wording of the town warrant was disingenuous in that it painted the school district as one that was seeking an another override. This wording of the town warrant absolutely scared voters into thinking taxes would be increased.”
In a November 13 letter to DESE, Rehoboth selectmen chairman Gerry Schwall cited “the ever-increasing and unsustainable financial demands” from the school district.
Last August, selectmen had reached a compromise with the school committee. In exchange for giving the school department an additional $330,000 for the 2020 budget, selectmen had proposed $214,000 in cuts to town departments. Voters rejected the revised FY20 budget at the October 29 town meeting and the district-wide meeting scheduled for November 2 was cancelled. The Rehoboth and Dighton boards of selectmen had met on October 30 for the purpose of selecting a moderator for the tent meeting. When they reviewed the warrant drafted by the school committee, Schwall realized the budget figure was inaccurate. The warrant article for the “tent” meeting called for the appropriation of $29 million for the school budget. Dighton was responsible for $10. 5 million and Rehoboth was responsible for $19.3 million. The total school budget was $45 million. Cooper noted that Peter Hoogerzeil, Schwall’s choice for moderator, would not allow an amendment to include the full budget number at the district-wide meeting.
“In each such case, the District could have chosen to accept such appropriation and avoid losing control over the schools’ management, and, in each such case, the District refused to do so, opting instead for expensive and adversarial mechanisms that, at best would have netted a purely incremental increase in funding,” Schwall added.