Board meets attorneys to discuss funding fight
by Mike Eldred
Apr 01, 2017 | 3764 views | 0 0 comments | 87 87 recommendations | email to a friend | print
WHITINGHAM- Selectboard members met with attorney Bob Fisher and attorneys from Costello, Valente, and Gentry PC to discuss taking legal action against the state over education funding.

Board members held a brief discussion in open session, before calling an executive session to discuss specific strategies.

Board member Karl Twitchell asked for the attorneys’ opinion on the value of creating a school budget that would fit within state spending recommendations. Whitingham Selectboard members have asked several times for Twin Valley School Board members to produce a detailed budget with spending reduced to eliminate any excess spending penalty, however, school board members have not acquiesced.

“I would like to see a proposed, not that it has to be presented, but a proposed budget for getting us out of the penalty box to support our argument,” Twitchell said. “The school keeps balking, but I’m just saying propose it, as opposed to presenting it.”

Board member Greg Brown agreed, but he noted that the school board may have concern that, once created, the bare bones budget could be used against the school. “They may have some apprehension about showing that to the state, because the state may find ways for them to live within the guidelines,” Brown said. “And they don’t want to go there because it may be doable with large cuts to staff. I’m not sure they’re ready to throw that on the desk and say ‘There, show us how to make it work,’ and have the state show them how to make it work.”

“I think we have to work together to have tangible, arguable information,” Twitchell said. “The way I understand how the court system works, is that it’s about storytelling. Whoever has the best story, with facts behind it, wins.”

“You’re asking whether it’s a better case if we have the budget as presented now,” said Fisher, “which results in a high increase, or bring a case with a skeleton budget that shows there are inequalities in what a skeleton budget that’s outside of the penalty in compliance with (Act 68) provides. A budget that shows what we’re not getting as compared to other schools.”

Fisher said there are pros and cons to either approach, but specific strategies should be discussed in executive session.

The 2018 Twin Valley budget was voted down in both towns at Town Meeting, after taxpayers in the towns expressed concern about double-digit tax rate increases.

On Tuesday, the Twin Valley School Board warned a re-vote of the budget by Australian ballot on Wednesday, April 12, with informational meetings at Twin Valley Elementary on Thursday, April 6, at 7 pm, and Twin Valley Middle/High School on Tuesday, April 11, at 7 pm.

Fisher asked if any significant cuts had been made to the school budget. Brown explained that the school would have to cut an additional $750,000 from the budget to avoid excess spending penalties. “It’s a little hard to know if it’s accurate, since the tax rate changed three times, but at the beginning it would require an additional $750,000 reduction, so a total reduction of $1.5 million by shifting costs or a reduction in expenses. That goes back to what Karl and I were just saying, if we can show that on paper, it would be one of the arguments to discuss.”

The board also pondered how they would work with the Wilmington Selectboard and Twin Valley School Board, and communicate with the public. “Once we go into executive session, the paper won’t be here to record what’s going on,” said Twitchell. “I want to be as transparent as possible with three boards working together. I think we may have to have some meetings that might be three boards in executive session.”

Fisher suggested appointing a spokesman to communicate with the other two boards.

Selectboard chair Keith Bronson, participating from Florida by Skype, said all three of the boards that will be involved have to discuss the potential litigation, and meet together again. “The Wilmington board may have different thoughts than we do, and the school board may have different thoughts than the other boards.”

“It’s not a foregone conclusion that all three boards will be moving in the same direction,” summed up Fisher.

At a previous meeting with Wilmington Selectboard members, the group suggested appointing a committee or several committees to proceed with litigation. “I think there should be one committee, and that committee has to be devoted to the fight,” Twitchell said.

Fisher suggested that the board propose a committee after an executive session, and give the other two boards time to respond. The board entered into an executive session with the attorneys, town clerk and treasurer Almira Aekus, and selectboard administrator Gig Zboray. After the session, however, no proposal was made.

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