Moderator Leon Corse called the meeting to order with several district voters in attendance. Corse added a bit of levity to the meeting by remarking that he had been elected as moderator at the union school’s inaugural meeting last year “because I was not there to decline.”
Corse recalled a moment from Whitingham’s Town Meeting history. “Sometime in the 1940s, Whitingham Town Clerk Will Canedy, who served from 1917 to 1953, was not happy with how moderator Elliott Morse was conducting the meeting and kept correcting him. Morse grew increasingly frustrated until he finally said ‘Mr. Canedy, I was elected to run this meeting. I may never run another, but I will run this one.’”
After noting that the first five articles on the warning would be voted by Australian ballot on March 6, Corse called for votes on Article VI, to accept the school district report, and Article VII, to authorize the school board to borrow money in anticipation of taxes. Voters passed both without discussion.
After Corse concluded the union school district annual meeting, board members opened up the floor for a budget informational discussion. During the discussion, it was revealed that the Whitingham Selectboard did not include an article asking voters to support a user fee for public and municipal use of the school. In their initial budget calculations, the school had anticipated receiving $110,000 in user fees from the town based on previous payments.
Twin Valley Chair Sharon Berry said the loss of revenue would reduce Whitingham’s projected education tax savings from the merger by about 5.5 cents, but that number was offset by a savings of 4 cents on the municipal tax. Overall, Whitingham taxpayers will pay 1.5 cents more in property taxes than had been initially projected.
Whitingham Selectboard member Greg Brown asked if school board members would like an explanation. “I would,” said Whitingham school board member John Doty. “I’d like to know why we’re going to pay another penny-and-a-half because the town is not going to take their responsibility on.”
Brown reminded school board members that, in April 2017, the selectboard had asked them for an itemized list of uses and services the town receives, along with a breakdown of the costs. Brown read from a Deerfield Valley News article in which the board discussed the request at a regular board meeting. At the April meeting, supervisory union business manager Karen Atwood said “I’m sure that’s something we should put together for Wilmington, too, so that means looking at what those things are and putting dollar amounts to them.” But board members suggested postponing the discussion in light of changes under Act 46. “It’s going to be totally different then, said board member Adam Grinold. Board member Aimee Reed said the board could take it under advisement. “They don’t dictate what we do,” she said at the time. Both Atwood and superintendent Chris Pratt indicated that user fees would be the matter of future discussions, but didn’t elaborate.
Brown said the selectboard was surprised they received no further communication from the school board regarding their request for information, and no inquiry from the school board regarding the expected revenue. Noting that the user fee had been an issue of concern for the selectboard for the last few years, Brown said the board took the silence from the school and this year’s favorable education tax decrease as an opportunity to “separate the town budget from the unified union budget.”
Brown said the town has, and continues to, carry some costs associated with the school. “The town has purchased and maintained the generator, plows and sands, and responds to issues like water in the woodchip building. Equipment, materials, and overtime are real expenses for the town budget.”
Brown characterized the user fee as “robbing Peter to pay Paul” and said that it was the selectboard’s duty to “maintain a budget that is accounted for, and keeps costs down. I would never write a check for $110,000 without knowing what I’m paying for. We wanted a contract spelling out what we’re getting for our $110,000 for our auditors, and we got nothing.”
Brown also said that the selectboard has initiated and paid for an education funding lawsuit that he suggested was done on behalf of the school. The lawsuit, he said, was based on the premise that state funding is inadequate for schools like Twin Valley, and that a budget that doesn’t include town revenue would bolster the claim. “Present a budget that is real,” he said. “If you don’t have the revenue from the towns, it’s a stronger case to go to the state and say this is what we’re spending and this is what we’re getting from you, your mechanism is wrong. We can’t keep sweeping in money from the sides.”
Doty protested that the user fee was still a legal way to reduce taxes. “I’m baffled as to why the selecboard won’t take up their fiduciary duty to reduce taxes in town,” he said.
“I’m one of five board members,” Brown said, “but I take my duty pretty damned seriously. I wouldn’t hire anyone to do any mowing without getting something on paper. When we asked you for something, it fell on deaf ears.”
Board member Seth Boyd said any discussion pitting the boards against each other was not helpful for taxpayers. He noted that the selectboard had previously left it up to taxpayers to decide through an article at Town Meting. “Every year, voters have approved it because it’s beneficial to the taxpayer. I agree that communication needs to improve, and I think I’m the one who has communicated the most. It’s not a welcoming environment.”
Boyd suggested that voters at Whitingham Town Meeting could amend the town budget to include a $110,000 line item for the user fee. “As long as the moderator agrees that the amendment is germane to the article,” interjected Corse, Whitingham’s long time moderator.