Robbinston School Committee Chair Tom Critchley is not confident that the local grade school could be kept open this coming year if voters approve the school budget at the Monday, July 28, budget validation vote. School budget numbers were changed by residents when they voted on 15 articles at the July 21 special town meeting.
Critchley says of the new figures, "You'd have to close the school. There's nothing left." He adds, "Hopefully enough people will show up [at the referendum vote] to vote that down."
A little over 20 Robbinston taxpayers attended the July 21 meeting, and about 12 of them were in no mood to go above the Essential Programs and Services (EPS) funding amount recommended by the state for the fiscal year 2014B2015 school budget. In fact when the voting was said and done, that amount had actually fallen below the EPS recommended amount by $16,709, Critchley confirmed after the meeting.
Moderator John Churchill pointed out during the proceedings that a number of people in the audience had an unusual amount of questions given the nature of a town meeting to vote on specific warrant articles. Resident Jeffrey Hummel had many questions and opinions, finally causing Churchill to tell him "one person at a time" when he interrupted another speaker. Copies of the budget were available at the special meeting, but audience members needed to be directed to specific pages and line items for explanations. The meeting lasted for a little over two hours.
AOS 77 Superintendent Jim Underwood noted that from February through June the school committee had held meetings open to the public to discuss the budget, which gave plenty of opportunity for people to give input on the budget and learn about how it works. Underwood tackled a number of questions, including going back over the budget line by line in some parts, and explained that EPS funding by the state is to meet the "bare minimum" of a student population's educational needs and is not actually funded by the state to meet that bare minimum, thus the need to allocate additional funds from different sources, including tax appropriations.
Other than Article 1 that was to vote in moderator Churchill, the remaining 14 warrants were specific to the school budget, with dollar amounts recommended by the school committee. Critchley was at the July 21 meeting with fellow school committee Vice Chair Joe Footer and board member James Trainor.
The total school budget recommended amount brought to the voters at the special town meeting was for $967,936, an increase of $59,775 over last year, with category amounts explained as the articles were voted on. However, because the town was receiving an increase in revenue from the state to the tune of $135,923 more than last year, for a total state revenue stream of $459,490, the total amount to be raised by local assessment was $91,149 less than last year, dropping from $565,000 to $473,946. Of the budget numbers recommended by the committee, Critchley says the committee thought it had "met everyone's needs, and then to get this [vote] last night. I didn't see it coming." He attributes it to low voter turnout with a group of people "that had made up its mind about what it wanted." He adds, "It's a shame that stuff like that happens when you get 20 people showing up for a meeting."
The meeting got off to a rocky start almost immediately with Article 2 when resident Sue Crawford asked for the meaning of the "regular education program." The school committee recommended the amount of $479,550 to fund that part of the school budget that does not include special education, transportation, school lunches and a few other line items addressed in other articles. The amount was almost $12,000 less than last year's budget. By a vote of 10 to nine, those present nixed the entire amount, which suggested that those school children not being taught through special education funding might be transported to school for lunch but little else.
Churchill continued with the following articles, which met with approval: Article 3, $220,899 for special education program, an increase of $46,108 that has been matched by reimbursement revenue; articles 4 and 5 for zero amounts for career and technical education and other instruction; Article 6, $10,500 for student and staff support, explained by Underwood as used for a public health nurse to visit and IT support; Article 7, $49,270, for system administration, Underwood explaining that this was for the town's share of the AOS office and staff; Article 8, $27,698, school administration; and Article 9, $64,017, for transportation and buses.
Also approved was: Article 10, $75,757, for facilities maintenance with an increase of $7,217, with Underwood explaining that deferred maintenance could no longer be put off, as the school had been inspected and was required to fix a number of issues; Article 11 for zero dollars for debt service and other commitments; Article 12, $40,245, all other expenditures, comprised entirely of food service and with no increase over last year; Article 13, $406,013, the town's contribution to the total cost of funding public education grades K through 12 as described in the EPS, or the amount of money determined by state law to be the minimum amount that the town must raise in order to receive the full amount of state dollars.
When it came to Article 14, the amount of $67,933 recommended to raise and appropriate in additional local funds, the vote by written ballot turned down the recommendation by a vote of 12 to 10. Churchill noted that Article 15, authorizing the total sum of $967,935 for the school committee to expend during the year, could not be voted upon, given the votes on articles 2 and 14. Citing process, he suggested that a resident who had voted against Article 2 could make the motion to revisit and adjust the amount to be used by the school system for the regular education program. Selectmen Chair Tom Moholland made that motion. Voters approved the amount of $411,617 for that article and then followed with a total system budget of $900,003, which is $67,933 less than what the school committee had recommended and reflects the decision by the voters to zero out Article 14.
In a rare moment of exasperation, Underwood told those present that he did not know how they could have turned down the recommended budget when it had resulted in $91,140 less in tax appropriation and that the school budget had been whittled down over the last four or five years to bare bones. Critchley explains that, with its proposed budget, the school committee had tried to address the teaching principal's need to have assistance teaching three classes while also conducting her principal duties.
Before the teaching principal position was created, the school had tried having a part‑time principal. "It didn't work," Critchley says. So the school committee looked at adding a teacher. Critchley says that when the selectmen heard about a possible teaching position being added in, "They had a fit." The school committee ended up adding a part‑time ed tech to help. "We thought lowering the tax commitment by $91,000 plus getting help for Brenda [teaching principal Brenda Donovan] was a win‑win."
Robbinston voters will have the opportunity to vote for or against the adjusted budget at the budget validation vote to be held on Monday, July 28, from 12 to 7 p.m. at the town fire station. Robbinston voters are no strangers to the budget validation referendum process, having in 2013 participated in two validation referendum votes when residents were almost equally divided about that year's school budget.