Phillipston votes reduced NRSd Assessment

  • Superintendent Chris Casavant tries in vain to convince Phillipston voters not to reduce their assessment to the Narragansett Regional School district. Staff Photo/Greg Vine

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 7/1/2020 2:25:44 PM
Modified: 7/1/2020 2:25:36 PM

PHILLIPSTON — Voters at Monday’s annual town meeting in Phillipston opted not to fund the more than $1.6 million assessment requested by the Narragansett Regional School Committee for the district’s FY21 budget. That amount represents an increase of about $45,000 over the current year’s budget. Instead, they decided to provide the district with an even $1 million. Not only does that amount fall below the amount sought by the committee, it also fails to meet the minimum local contribution of $1.2 million the state says the town must contribute to the NRSD.

At their town meeting on June 17, Templeton voters approved that town’s requested contribution of just over $6.9 million. The total proposed budget, including local contributions, state aid and other sources, comes to $20.7 million

The motion to reduce the town’s contribution was made by resident James Buzzell, one of a group of parents upset over what has appeared to be an ongoing effort by district officials to close the Phillipston Memorial Elementary School. The fate of the school seemed to be sealed last year after voters in Templeton, the district’s other member, failed after one ballot question and three joint town meetings to approve an operating budget that would allow PMS to remain open.

“To lower that number to $1 million,” Superintendent Chris Casavant said after the motion was made, “first off, would mean massive cuts — which we’ve already made. And the fact is, we would not be sustainable as a district. We’ve already made several cuts to teaching positions, as everyone knows at this point.

“I would also suggest that these are your children that these cuts would affect. We can talk numbers all day; we can go back and forth about numbers. Just remember, 94 percent of that increase — talking about the minimum contribution — comes from the state. To cut a million dollars — to cut $70,000 — is going to affect your children.”

Noting that 90 percent of the students from Phillipston will be elementary school children, he said cuts at the elementary level that would result from the reduced contribution would include an intense special needs teacher, a school psychologist, and a behavioral specialist.

“Last year, the School Committee wanted a budget of $19.7 million,” said Buzzell, “and that was to keep both elementary schools open. This year we need over $20 million, and we’re going to close an elementary school. So, we need $300,000 more dollars for one less school? That doesn’t really seem like it makes sense.”

Referencing last year’s passage of a Proposition 2½ override to fund the school committee’s recommended budget for FY20, and Templeton’s defeat of the same question, Selectboard member Gerhard Fandreyer said turn-about is fair play.

“Templeton usually votes a lower number,” he said. “I think this year Phillipston should do so because our school is closing. We won’t have our school anymore, and they’re saving lots and lots of money by doing so. Yet, we don’t see that in our budget at all, and there’s something really wrong with that.”

Several residents complained that Phillipston is subsidizing the cost of the new Templeton Elementary School, which opened last year, and which is where Phillipston elementary school students will have to attend class in the upcoming academic year. However, Town Accountant Kelli Potbriand, who also serves in the same position in Templeton, said that is not the case.

“I just want to make sure that everyone here knows,” she said, “that the debt on the (Templeton) elementary school is a debt for Templeton. The school district has nothing to do with that. Nothing from your assessment goes toward (their) debt. That is a 100 percent debt paid for by the town of Templeton out of the tax dollars there.”

The vote to approve the amendment, and thus the reduced contribution to the district, was 28-18. With 56 total voters in attendance, it appears some residents were undecided on the best way to proceed.

Before the meeting adjourned, Finance Committee Co-Chair Tom Specht offered a motion to revisit the NRSD budget issue. While the motion was seconded, it was easily defeated on a voice vote.

Asked after the meeting what happens next, Superintendent Casavant said it’s up to the School Committee to either accept or reject the budget that would result from the reduction of cash from Phillipston. He said it’s likely residents from both towns will again be asked to make their voices heard at a joint town meeting.

He said he was uncertain if the town faces any sanctions as a result of failing to meet the state’s minimum local contribution.

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