Cheshire town meeting voters reject Adams-Cheshire Regional School District budget

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CHESHIRE — In a repudiation of the imminent closure of Cheshire Elementary School, Cheshire voters rejected the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District's proposed budget on Monday.

In a contentious and often confusing Annual Town Meeting on Monday, voters expressed dismay with the school committee's decision to close Cheshire Elementary School and resulting budget for fiscal 2018.

The Adams-Cheshire Regional School District's School Committee voted earlier this year to close Cheshire Elementary School prior to the 2017-2018 school year in an effort to become more efficient and add new positions to the district.

Cheshire's assessment to the district increased from $2.64 million to $2.72 million in the proposed fiscal 2018 budget, an increase of 3 percent. The district's total budget proposal, approved by the School Committee in April, is $19.27 million.

The budget is now passed back to the School Committee, which has a window to reconsider the budget and propose a revised version or attempt a second time to have the same budget passed. Monday's vote in Cheshire does not reverse the School Committee's decision to close Cheshire Elementary, it only rejects the district's budget.

The meeting, which was held at Cheshire Elementary, drew more than 200 voters who filled the school's auditorium.

Resident Gary Trudeau made the motion to vote down the school district's budget. It was turned down by a vote of 115 to 86.

"There's a lot of wasteful spending in our school system. I have documentation to support it, so I would appreciate you voting it down," Trudeau said.

Adam Emerson, the newly elected Cheshire representative on the School Committee, said his wife has taught at Cheshire Elementary for more than a decade and admitted he was angry the committee voted to close it.

However, he voiced support for the school's budget proposal.

"This is the budget we need. This is the budget that's going to get our district functioning again," Emerson said.

Resident John Tremblay questioned the power "Adams has been wielding ... over this budget."

"We have been taken advantage of," Tremblay said.

Tremblay also asserted that closing C.T. Plunkett would have saved the district more money than closing Cheshire Elementary.

"I don't think we want to see the downward spiral of the school district, but the decision that was made I believe was a mistake," Tremblay said.

Darlene Rodowicz, a Cheshire representative on the School Committee, contended that the quality of education is more important to prospective residents that the location of the school.

Even if the additional funding was approved, Rodowicz, who voted against the closure of Cheshire Elementary earlier this year, questioned whether the town would just find itself in the same situation next year.

"We may only be saving a sinking ship ... and I fought really hard to try to keep Cheshire open," Rodowicz said.

Superintendent Robert Putnam explained that without a budget, the district's budget will be based on the previous year's spending plan. In this case, it would require cuts of about $280,000, so the district would not hire the new positions laid out in the budget — three interventionists and a special education coordinator.

Advisory Board member E. Richard Scholz also advocated voting down the school budget.

"Our leverage goes away if we approve this budget," Scholz said.

Emerson rejected Scholz's approach, saying rejecting the budget for leverage would be "gambling" with the education of children.

"We can't make a political decision when we need to making an educational one," Emerson said.

A citizens' petition to amend the district agreement to allow Cheshire to fund its elementary school failed amid questions about its legality.

The School Committee's vote prompted Cheshire parents to organize, resulting in a series of citizens' petitions on the Annual Town Meeting warrant that seek to allow the town of Cheshire to fund the additional cost of keeping its elementary school open next year.

Article 10 on the annual town meeting warrant sought approval of an emergency amendment to the district agreement that stipulates how each town funds the district. The amendment would require approval by voters in Adams and the commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Town Counsel Edmund St. John III said DESE had the opportunity to review the proposal in May and expressed concern with its format. He noted that there was nothing in the proposal that compelled the district to keep Cheshire Elementary open.

"This unfortunately does not satisfy the requirements," St. John said. "DESE has indicated they're not going to accept this."

Given the questions surrounding its legality, the article failed.

Articles 11 and 12 sought $150,000 from free cash and $150,000 from stabilization, respectively, to fund the continued operation of Cheshire Elementary School. Since Article 10 failed, Articles 11 and 12 largely became irrelevant and were turned away by voters.

As a catch-all, in case Articles 11 and 12 failed, a citizens petition in Article 13 requested $300,000 to fund the district, but did not specify from what funding source. It failed when nobody in the meeting made a motion to approve it.

The Cheshire town budget, which ran closely to the tax levy limit established under Proposition 2 1/2, was approved, not including the district budget.

The $5.92 million proposed budget was an increase of 5.9 percent over the previous year's plan, largely due to increases in education costs and in town operations, including debt payments on two town vehicles.

Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376 or @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter


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