November 22, 2019

Tent Meeting Cancelled Due to Faulty Warrant

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The November 2 district-wide meeting was cancelled at the last minute due to an incorrectly worded warrant, according to Rehoboth selectmen chairman Gerry Schwall.

An e-mail sent out on Friday afternoon by school committee chairperson Katherine Cooper said: “The district wide meeting regarding the Dighton Rehoboth Regional School District proposed budget, scheduled for November 2, 2019, has been cancelled. The School Committee did everything they could to hold this meeting and allow debate. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

The warrant article 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 is $45 million.

The Rehoboth selectmen had worked out a compromise agreement with the school committee in the hope of resolving the budget turmoil. 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.

That warrant article was rejected by voters at the October 29 town meeting, which prompted the school committee to hold the district-wide “Tent” meeting for the two towns.

The Rehoboth and Dighton Boards of Selectmen met on Wednesday 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.

Cooper and School Superintendent Anthony Azar did not respond to the Reporter’s requests for a comment.

“The only legal vote that you can take at a district-wide meeting is on the total budget for the school district,” Schwall said. “There was nothing to vote on at the meeting because you don’t vote appropriations, you don’t vote assessments at the tent meeting, only the total budget number so that in our opinion created a fatal flaw.”

The school committee could have called for an additional appropriation to fund the $45 million, but that never would have worked, Schwall noted.

“The moderator (Peter Hoogerzeil, town moderator for Seekonk) that we had just appointed said there is no way he would allow a motion to increase (the appropriation) by $15 million. He said that was way beyond the scope of the article. It would never stand scrutiny. To the average voter, it’s not correct.”

The town’s legal counsel, Jay Talerman, was contacted, along with Jeff Wulfson, Deputy Commissioner of the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). "The budget must include “all proposed operating expenditures, capital expenditures, and debt service payments to be paid from general revenues of the regional school district,” Wulfson wrote to Cooper. “These revenue sources include not only assessments to be paid by the member towns but also anticipated unrestricted state aid, excess and deficiency funds, stabilization funds, and other district income. The motion to be voted on by the district meeting must clearly specify the full amount of the budget.”

“Based upon the foregoing, it is my opinion that the warrant for the D-R District-Wide meeting is faulty because it does not contain the entire School Budget but, rather, just a total of Dighton’s and Rehoboth’s proposed assessments,” Talerman wrote to Schwall via e-mail on October 31. “It is my further opinion that, with all due respect to the deference to be applied by the meeting moderator, an amendment on the floor of the District Wide Meeting to increase the budget by the approximately $16 million of State Aid would be beyond the scope of the article given the lack of notice to eligible voters.”

On December 1, the state will assume operational control of the school district if a budget has not been approved. Another tent meeting is a possibility. Schwall is grateful the School Committee made the decision to cancel the meeting. “Even though it took too long, I’m glad they eventually did the right thing,” Schwall said. “It was the only decision that was correct. People are demanding transparency and they’re demanding that people follow the rules. We don’t put ourselves on a different standard and we don’t think the School Committee should either.”

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