Sandisfield rejects school costs, forcing towns to adopt new budget by July 1

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SANDISFIELD — Balking at a painful hike in school costs, voters at annual town meeting Saturday shot down the school budget in a 30-to-21 vote.

Some residents and town officials said the 8.4 percent increase over last year's assessment from the Farmington River Regional School District was simply too steep.

But now, this places the entire 2020 budget at risk if Sandisfield and Otis voters don't approve a new budget by July 1.

Yet, voters approved the town's own budget without much of a hitch in a "jolly good" fashion, to use moderator Simon Winchester's expression.

The town will create its new, full-time public safety officer position to ensure a solid ambulance service. And the Department of Public Works will get its new F-350 pickup truck and a used loader backhoe.

But now, the school budget will have to be reworked, and fast.

For the district's overall $4.2 million school budget to pass, both towns have to approve it.

Sandisfield's $1.6 million share includes a cost spike of $122,000 from last year. This is due to an increase, by five, in the number of students from Sandisfield, as well as a rise in the minimum amount a state formula says the town must pay for its schools.

It's also because the district is using the state's formula for assessing costs to the towns, rather than the regional agreement created between Otis and Sandisfield when the district was founded in 1992.

Using the regional agreement method for the 2020 budget would save the town $22,000. This method is based on student head counts alone.

But the state method has, over the years, helped Sandisfield — saving it $86,000 since 2007.

Still, the cost increase left some voters smarting.

"You're going to chase out the working people that make this town what it is," said resident Brigitte Ruthman. "A vote against the school budget is not a vote against education."

The town Select Board agrees; it unanimously did not support the school budget in a vote last month and wants the regional agreement to govern the assessment. The Finance Committee was split on its support, 2-2.

Out of the town's 585 registered voters, 60 came to the fire station. Those nine votes that sunk the school budget could imperil the school district's ability to make payroll next year. To avoid this, the regional School Committee will have to make a new budget at its June 3 meeting, and that will have to be approved by Sandisfield and Otis voters by July 1, at special town meetings.

If the new budget doesn't pass by July 1, the district will receive only one-twelfth of last year's budget every month until it can pass something the towns can approve, said Eric Jesner, the district's business manager.

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Jesner later told The Eagle that he worries about switching back and forth between the statutory and regional agreement assessment methods, and then having a shortfall with the one-twelfth amount.

"It creates a debate each year, and the town that has more votes is going to determine which method is used," he said.

A shortfall, he added, means "possibly some difficult decisions."

"We will have to make sure that we have enough money to meet payroll," he said.

Resident and School Committee member John Skrip appeared outraged by a threat to the school budget. He said the problem is rising health care and school busing costs, combined with diminishing state aid.

"Our teachers don't make enough money," he said, noting that teachers are making about what it costs per year to incarcerate a person. "What we have is a problem with public funding."

He also said it was unfair to switch the assessment formula simply because it will benefit Sandisfield next year.

"Sandisfield saved $86,000 over the years," he said. "Now, we want to change the rules. It's not fair to Otis to change in the middle of the game."

As of last fall, the cost to send each of Sandisfield's 97 students to Farmington River Regional School was $20,236, including busing costs, Jesner said in response to a question.

He explained that the district had decided to use the statutory method in 1994, a year after the enactment of the state's education reform bill the previous year, and that the School Committee votes every year to keep that method in place. This year, the vote was 4-2 in favor.

New position approved

Facing difficulties staffing the town's ambulance service with daytime volunteers, the town approved the hiring of a public safety officer for $57,400. The officer will be available for medical, fire and police calls from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. to ensure that there are enough people to respond to increasing numbers of emergency medical calls.

Officials also plan to ask the town of Tolland for a $30,000 contribution for its use of Sandisfield's ambulance service, since Tolland does not have its own service.

Fire Chief Ralph Morrison said the officer position is crucial to the health and safety of residents. His voice cracked when he asked voters to approve it.

"We have to have this program," said Morrison, who, as fire chief, often is alone when daytime calls come in.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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