Author Archives: ashwestsocs

Advocating for More School Funding at the State Level

Dear SOCS members,

In addition to getting out the vote for the July 18th Special Town Meeting in Ashburnham, 7:00 pm at Oakmont, we continue to advocate for more funding for schools from the state. Most recently our efforts have focused on supporting S.223 — An Act Modernizing the Foundation Budget for the 21st Century — a bill that would implement the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Committee with a multi-year phase-in.

In 1993, Massachusetts passed the Education Reform Act to ensure that all students receive a quality education, regardless of where they live. The bill established the “Foundation Budget,” a number that is calculated annually to determine how much state funding (Chapter 70 Education Aid) and local funding (Required Local Contribution) each school district will receive. The Foundation Budget formula has not been updated since it was created 24 years ago. The 2015 Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC) found that health care and special education costs have far surpassed assumptions built into the original formula. As a result, those increasing costs have forced districts to cut other critical investments. Bills like this will increase our community’s chances of receiving more funding from the state.

For more information and to sign our online petition supporting the bill.

Join Natalie Nelson (SOCS planning committee) and Ellen Holmes (AWRSD School Committee member) in Boston on July 25th, when all school finance bills, including S.223, will be presented at the state house. The public is welcome to come and listen. We are also welcome to testify on the bill’s behalf.

  • The hearings begin at 10:00 am and go all day.
  • They will take place in Hearing Room 2A.
  • There will be tables set up outside of the hearing room with separate sign up sheets for each education bill. Sign your name on the list for the bill you support and you will have the opportunity to speak for up to 3 minutes when the bill is called.
  • People are also encouraged to submit written testimony to supplement their testimony.
  • There is no timeline since some bills may have no one speak and others may have multiple people, so plan to get there before 10:00 and spend the day.
  • Contact Natalie at ncoggeshall@yahoo.com if you would like to coordinate efforts, including carpooling.

Also, SOCS member Holly Garlock will be meeting with Senator Gobi’s aide during office hours on July 17th at 2:00 pm to share concerns about ongoing funding issues and discuss school choice funding. Other SOCS members are welcome to attend. Contact Holly at hollyhgarlock@yahoo.com if you can’t make it but have specific questions or concerns you would like her to raise.

We can’t stress enough the importance of continuing to work long-term on the structural problems with school funding at the state level. Please spread the word!

Best-
Lori, Natalie, Holly & Tiffany

Timeline for Re-Vote in Ashburnham

Dear SOCS members,

The Ashburnham Board of Selectmen has approved the following timeline for sending the new, certified school budget number to residents for their approval.

  • Tuesday, July 18th: Special Town Meeting, 7:00 pm at Oakmont Regional High School

IF the new number is approved at the special town meeting, then …

  • Wednesday, July 19th: last chance to register to vote in the August 8th Special Town Election (Town Clerk’s office open until 8 pm to accept registrations)
  • Monday, August 7th: last day to request an absentee ballot application; due by noon at the Town Clerk’s office
  • Tuesday, August 8th: Special Town Election, polls open from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm at Briggs Elementary School

Natalie Nelson (ncoggeshall@yahoo.com) and Cathy Cunningham (cmhand17@comcast.net) will be leading the “get out the vote” campaign in Ashburnham. Let them know if you have questions or are available to help. Also, please talk with friends, neighbors and family about the upcoming votes. We continue to meet folks who haven’t heard about the school funding issues in our towns.

Webmaster Jonathan Tegg is updating the estimated tax increase calculator on the SOCS website, to reflect the new, lower override number. We will let you know once it is up and running. Also, we will have an update on our efforts to advocate at the state level next week. Stay tuned!

Tiffany, Holly, Lori & Natalie

Sentinel & Enterprise: Second override vote ahead for town

By Amanda Burke

ASHBURNHAM — Just over a week after voters narrowly rejected a measure to increase schools funding through a permanent property tax increase, the Board of Selectmen on Wednesday greenlit a Special Town Meeting where voters will decide whether or not to hold a second override vote.

The Special Town Meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m., Tuesday, July 18 in the auditorium of Oakmont Regional High School, said Town Clerk Michelle Johnson.

Voters will consider a single warrant item: To see if the town will vote to raise an additional $475,656 for the Ashburnham Westminster Regional School District’s fiscal 2018 operating budget.

Ashburnham’s share of the override amount is $153,886 less than what was voted on June 20, when 687 people rejected (and 663 approved) a Proposition 2 1/2 override that in would have generated $629,542 in annual tax revenue to fund Ash-West schools.

“I’m glad to see that the number is down,” said Selectmen Chair Leo Janssens, who was not present at Wednesday’s meeting. “I think it makes it more acceptable to voters.”

Ash-West Superintendent Gary Mazzola said at a special School Committee meeting on Tuesday that $250,000 in heat and health insurance savings was identified in the fiscal 2018 budget.

That savings, along with a new estimate on how much funding the district can expect to receive from the state, up more than $73,000 than originally expected, helped knock down the total amount of the override from $1,221,212 to $897,582, which would be split, not necessarily equally, between the two towns.

Westminster does not need to hold another override vote because residents approved the measure last Tuesday.

If the override passes in Ashburnham on second try, the regional school district would have funding for a “prioritized services” budget, which the School Committee recertified Tuesday.

That $29,739,424 budget aims to restore some of the personnel and services cut in pervious years, including more than 10 teaching positions across various grade levels.

Former Ashburnham Selectman Maggie Whitney said she voted down the override last Tuesday. She said she is critical of the decision to hold a Special Town Meeting where voters may authorize another override vote.

Whitney said the School Committee and the Board of Selectmen should recognize the contingent of Ashburnham voters who initially rejected the override.

“It’s not that we don’t believe in education, everyone believes in education,” said Whitney. “It’s a question of a lot of people in this town can’t afford it.”

A voicemail requesting comment from School Committee Chair David Christianson Jr was not returned.

Gardner News: Override vote set for July 18

Doneen Durling
News Correspondent

ASHBURNHAM – The Board of Selectmen voted to set a town meeting for July 18 for the sole purpose of asking voters for a $475,656 Proposition 2 ½ tax override to benefit the Ashburnham Westminster Regional School District.

Selectmen also voted to set up an election for Aug. 8, for the second vote that would be needed to pass it.

Before the approval, Chairman Kyle Johnson opened up the meeting to listen to public opinion.

Concerned citizen Raven Bergeron suggested that a “frequently asked questions” informational sheet be handed out before the ballot vote for those who did not attend meetings or keep up with the flow of information.

Johnson said that many ideas have been discussed for ways to keep voters in the loop as information on the budget is released.

“The goal is just to get information out and give people what they need to formulate their own opinions,” he said.

Johnson said they are seeking different ways to disseminate information including posting the information at Town Hall, and putting it on the town’s website.

Members of the group Save Our Children and Schools were well-represented at the meeting. They expressed their thanks for the collaboration between the town and School Committee.

Selectman John Mulhall suggested that people watch the town website for any information on informational meetings or forums that will be happening before the Town Meeting.

A memorandum of un­­der­standing was requested by some who believed the vote did not pass because people were wary of the fact that an override is permanent, and there would be no way to control the amount going to the schools the year after the override was passed.

Johnson said the board decided that, in an age of double-speak, it would produce a letter that “cut right to the chase.”

They adopted something simple with just one sentence.

“It is the intention of the current Board of Selectmen to apply any funding procured by a Proposition 2 ½ override to its intended voted purpose in future budget years,” Johnson read from the prepared document.

“We weren’t interested in it being any more complicated than that and really being up to interpretation,” said Johnson.

School Committee member Michelle Gianino nodded her approval of the letter saying, “Straight to the point. No fluff. It’s the best way to go.”

Gianino said that many people she spoke to expressed concern the school district would find itself repeatedly asking for funding if the override was not dedicated consistently to the district.

“Thank you for making that commitment,” she said.

Mulhall said he was happy the School Committee was able to reduce the override number the previous evening.

On June 20, a vote taken at the ballot box by Ashburnham voters for an override in the amount of $679,733 for the school district’s prioritized budget failed by only 24 votes.

School Committee Chairman David Christianson gave all credit for the reduction in the override assessment to School District Business Manager Julie Surprenant and Superintendent Gary Mazzola.

“It’s about a 25 percent reduction in the overall number,” he said. “It’s a good demonstration of the kind of diligence those folks have.”

Johnson said that the budget cycle with all its dates is inherently flawed in that decisions on numbers are made before all the numbers are in. He commended the business administrator and superintendent for their work to make the numbers work.

“I truly believe that there isn’t a corner or nook or cranny of that budget that has not had a light shown on it since Dr. Mazzola and really Julie took over and started digging into that. I am extremely confident,” said Johnson.

Mulhall agreed saying he had studied the 35-page budget and had multiple questions answered.

“We are looking about as lean as we could look,” he said.

Christianson gave a synopsis of the reasons for the reductions to the override request. He said there were three components. He explained that there was $250,000 on the expense side in savings, and $200,000 of was gleaned when the open enrollment and opt-out period for the health plan for the school district ended early last week. The district had additional unexpected opt-outs combined with a 1.5 percent reduction in premium because of additional co-pay changes.

An additional $50,000 savings in heating costs were realized after the numbers came in from the first year of operating the new pellet boiler at Overlook Middle School. Combined with additional savings seen at J.R. Briggs Elementary with its pellet boiler, the savings added up.

Christianson said the balance of the adjustment to the override is the assumption that there is about $70,000 additional Chapter 70 state school aid for transportation and other items the Legislature has factored into the state budget. In total, there is about a $320,000 change to the override numbers.

Johnson said that in his opinion the town is standing at a crossroad with the school district.

“There really is an underlying crisis as it relates to classroom size,” said Johnson. “If we don’t do everything in our legal power to try and correct the problem, I will not have done the job I was elected to do. It is the same tenacity that I applied to the DPW building. If I am prepared to do it for a town building, how can I do anything less for the children?”

Mulhall said that the Board of Selectmen have a commitment. He said that he believes a society is judged on how they treat their elderly and their children.

“I think if we are not giving our children every opportunity, I think that if we don’t support the schools, our community is not going to be worth what we see today, and it is certainly not going to be anything close to what most of us want to see in 20 years.”

Mulhall said the state would not be coming through with a golden ticket.

“If we don’t support our schools, we are going to be struggling to tell our kids that we did the best by them.”

Town Administrator Heather Budrewicz said that if the override gets voted down, chances are a joint Town Meeting of the residents of both towns could be called if the School Committee chooses.

Budrewicz said that if it came to that and the vote in the joint meeting was for the full priority budget, Ashburnham would have to go back and cut $475,000 from the municipal budget (the part not including the schools), and do it over a reduced nine months’ worth of budget.

“That is very important for folks to realize,” said Budrewicz of the municipal budget, saying that scenario would prompt major town layoffs. “Our largest expense, just like with schools and teachers, is staff … so it is a very big concern.”

Gardner News: Override amount reduced

Town to try again at a lower number

Doneen Durling
News Correspondent

ASHBURNHAM – The Overlook School Library was filled with wary anticipation as the Ash­burnham Westminster School Committee met to recertify its budget after the failure of a Proposition 2 1/2 tax override in Ashburnham.

On June 20, Ashburnham voters rejected a $679,733 override for the school district’s prioritized budget by 24 votes. Westminster, which shares the regional school district, passed its companion $591,279 override.

School Business Admin­istrator Julie Surprenant said that due to health insurance and heat savings, she would recommend lowering the district’s prioritized budget by $250,000.

“The final health insurance renewal came in 1.5 percent less than budgeted because the Insurance Ad­­visory Committee accepted an increase in co-pays. The performance contract at Overlook and Oakmont has resulted in more savings than was anticipated. The savings from health insurance and heat is approximately $250,000, so after covering the difference from Level Service to what Ashburnham ap­­proved would still leave $127,735.”

Surprenant advised that the override numbers be lowered so that Ash­burnham’s new proposed number would be $475,656 and Westminster’s would be lowered to $421,926.

The final certified figure to support a prioritized budget in the amount of $29,739,424, developed to sustain the district strategic plan, was voted for by the seven School Committee members present.

Vice Chairman Gwen Farley said that she has heard many times from constituents that the School Committee will find a way without an override because the need was not real.

“People have to realize that we have to finalize a budget when we don’t have the state budget, the school year is not over. All the deadlines for next year’s teacher contracts and health care and all those things happen well after the deadline when we have to come up with a solid number.”

Farley said the number can change even in January when the state can take away what the district built the budget upon.

“When we find money that wasn’t there, we weren’t hiding it. The money is always a moving target.”

Farley said the state still has no budget, so the district is still guessing.

“It’s not that we were hiding it and now bringing it out. We just never know where the money is. We are always chasing it,” she said.

Ashburnham Town Administrator Heather Budrewicz said that the town would have to go back for another double override vote for the changed number, one at a Special Town Meeting and a second at the polls.

Budrewicz said the town would be required to post a Special Town Meeting notice 14 days before the meeting. She said that if selectmen agree Wednesday to hold a Special Town Meeting, the first date they would consider would be July 18.
The Special Election would require 35 days so the town can get the ballots and get things organized through the town clerk, she said.

“Since the town likes to do things on Tuesday, the earliest that would occur would be August 8. Those are a couple of dates we are playing with now. I have no idea what the select board in Ashburnham is going to do.”

Westminster Selectman Wayne Walker said as far as his town is concerned, they would not be required to take up the same process as Ashburnham considering the town has already passed a higher number at the polls. He said the only thing Westminster would be required to do was vote the final figure at the fall Town Meeting.

“As you will recall, the town of Westminster has already appropriated an additional $764,000 over last year for the schools,” said Walker.

Holly Garlock, parent and member of the Save Our Children and Schools group, asked if the School Committee will hold forums to get the word out to voters.

Garlock said that she was hearing from people that they were unaware the last vote taking place.

“I think people are becoming more involved and aware,” she said, this time around, and would like to have a forum before the next vote.

School Committee Chairman David Christianson said that there would be an opportunity to open up the floor at town meeting for discussion. He said that there would also be opportunity for smaller forums.

Ashburnham Selectman Kyle Johnson said if the School Committee wished to offer a public forum in advance of the Town Meeting, the town could offer up the use of the notification service to get the word out. He said it is something the town typically uses around election time for mass notification.

In other business, the School Committee voted to place $419,265 into the newly formed Special Education Stabilization Account. Both Ashburnham and Westminster voted to approve the formation of the account at the last Town Meetings. The district will place funds received from reimbursements for services to the students with special needs. Some of those funds are realized through Medicaid for services rendered.

The Ashburnham Board of Selectmen will meet Wednesday evening at 6:30 p.m. at the Public Safety Building to discuss the Town Meeting warrant and the subsequent ballot vote.

School Committee Certifies New Budget Number

The School Committee unanimously (with seven members attending) approved a new budget number of $29,739,424 for the 2017-2018 school year. While lower than the budget previously certified by the committee, the new budget fully funds the Strategic Plan/Prioritized Budget.

Next Steps

The new budget now goes back to the towns.

  • Westminster: since the town approved the override on June 20th, no further action is required until fall town meeting, when the town’s appropriation will be adjusted to reflect the new, lower number.
  • Ashburnham: since the town did not approve the override on June 20th, a special town meeting and second ballot vote will be required to approve the school budget. The Board of Selectmen will meet on Wednesday, 6/28 and must approve and set dates for both the meeting and the ballot vote.

Why the Lower Number?

With the end of the school year, Superintendent Gary Mazzola and Business Administrator Julie Surprenant were able to identify $250,000 in savings.

  • When the health insurance open enrollment period for staff closed in mid-June, 9 employees came off family plans and 3 came off individual plans, resulting in savings for the district.
  • The final health insurance renewal came in at 1.5% less than budgeted because the Insurance Advisory Committee accepted an increase in co-pays.
  • The performance contract at Overlook and Oakmont (building upgrades, especially new pellet boilers) resulted in higher than anticipated savings in heating costs.

In addition, the district anticipates receiving more in Chapter 70, Transportation, and Charter Reimbursement funding from the state. As a result, the district’s assessment to each town is lower.

If the Ashburnahm Board of Selectmen decides to move forward with a re-vote, we will be looking for help from all SOCS members to once again get out the vote. Stay tuned for more information.

Holly, Tiffany, Lori & Natalie

Sentinel & Enterprise: Ashburnham-Westminster school board OKs $29.7M budget

By Amanda Burke

ASHBURNHAM — The School Committee approved a $29,739,424 budget Tuesday, setting in motion a series of events that could end with another townwide Proposition 2 1/2 override vote in Ashburnham.

“We still have a prioritized budget, we still have all those elements that Gary and Julie presented based on the strategic plan,” said School Committee Chair David Christianson Jr.

The budget was approved after $250,000 in health insurance and heating savings was identified by Superintendent Gary Mazzola and Business Administrator Julie Surprenant.

School officials also came out with a revised estimate for how much money the district expects to receive from the state in fiscal 2018, up $73,629 from the amount that was originally budgeted, Mazzola said.

Combined, those sources of income and savings would reduce the burden on taxpayers in Ashburnham and Westminster by $323,630.

Another Proposition 2 1/2 override vote must be held in Ashburnham to finalize the budget approved by the School Committee Tuesday.

The Ashburnham Board of Selectmen will vote Wednesday on scheduling a Special Town Meeting, where residents would consider a single warrant item: Whether or not they support holding another town-wide ballot vote on a Proposition 2 1/2 override.

If the answer is yes, the new override amount put to voters would be $475,656, about $150,000 less than the amount Ashburnham voters rejected last Tuesday.

Westminster, which passed the override last Tuesday, does not need to hold a Special Town Meeting or schedule another Proposition 2 1/2 vote, school officials said.

Seven members of the Ashburnham Westminster Regional School District School Committee were present at the Tuesday meeting. The committee needed a super-majority of seven members to certify the prioritized budget, which it won by unanimous vote.

Sentinel & Enterprise: Ash-West to limit school choice

By Amanda Burke

ASHBURNHAM — Fewer school-choice students will be admitted to Ashburnham-Westminster regional schools, School Committee Chairman David Christianson Jr. said Monday, as the district starts to see their effect on growing class sizes.

“We believe we need to be able to step back the level of school-choice, take care of our own students first because it’s beginning to affect student-teacher ratios,” Christianson said at special meeting of the Ashburnham Board of Selectmen on Monday.

As recently as last year, the regional school committee scrapped a plan to raise $235,000 by increasing the number of school-choice students it accepts. The district receives $5,000 dollars annually for each of those students.

The reason for putting the kibosh on that revenue source? Some School Committee members feared adding more school-choice pupils would jack up class sizes, and the board decided not to raise the school-choice cap above 200.

Even though the cap stayed flat, students who live in towns and cities other than Ashburnham or Westminster are contributing to large class sizes, Christianson said, in a district where some elementary school classrooms have over 30 students and high school students sometimes struggle to find open sections.

“(We) made the decision to begin to step the school-choice number back, because we’re seeing a capacity problem, particularly in the elementary schools,” he said.

Several school-choice students have left the district since there were 198 in 2016. Currently 186 out-of-district students studying at Ash-West schools.

The district will cap the number of school-choice students at 186 for the 2017-2018 school year, Christianson said. In other words, those school-choice students who graduated this June will be replaced with new entrants, but no more beyond that.

Ashburnham-Westminster Regional Schools remain well-regarded for their academics as the regional district struggles with a significant funding gulf for next fiscal year, Christianson said.

“For all of our problems we’re a high-performing district and folks want to be here,” he said.

The School Committee will vote on a fiscal 2018 budget Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in the library of Overlook Middle School.

Last week, a Proposition 2 1/2 override to increase schools funding failed because of a split vote between the two towns in the regional district, with Ashburnham rejecting the measure by 24 votes.

The 10-person regional school committee needs a super-majority of 7 members to sign off on the fiscal 2018 budget. Christianson said just 7 members will be present at the meeting Tuesday, because three are out of town.

June 26: Ashburnham BOS Looking for Public Input Tonight

Dear SOCS members,

There are several important meetings this week about the 2017-2018 school budget.

The Ashburnham Board of Selectmen are now having two meetings to discuss the school budget situation.

  • TODAY—Monday, June 26th at 6:30—at the Public Safety Building they will discuss the override vote results and give the public a chance to share thoughts.
  • Wednesday, June 28th at 6:30 they will focus on next steps based on the School Committee decision (made at their meeting on Tuesday). The BOS have not yet confirmed a location—either in the Safety Building or in a room at the Town Hall. We will let you know.

The AWRSD School Committee Committee will meet on Tuesday, June 27 at 6:30 pm in the Overlook Middle School Library to review and vote on the best option for moving forward with the 2017-2018 operating budget.

  • Certify the budget represented by the amounts approved at the annual town meetings last May.
  • Certify a new number between the number approved at town meetings and the prioritized budget.
    Re-certify the prioritized budget.

There will be a chance for public comment, and you can write your thoughts to the committee (contact details available here) if you’re unable to attend.

We hope you can be part of these important discussions.

Lori, Natalie, Holly & Tiffany
Support Our Children & Schools

School Budget Update

The AWRSD School Committee met on Wednesday, June 21st, to discuss next steps in the wake of the failed override to fund the school budget for the 2017-2018 school year. Chairman Dave Christianson announced that the committee would not make a decision until the following week. The committee is currently considering three options:

  1. Certify the budget represented by the amounts approved at the annual town meetings last May. This amount would be just below level services. Choosing option #1 would bring things to a close, and put a budget in place for July 1st. We would abandon any hope of funding the strategic plan for the next school year.
  2. Certify a lower budget. This would send the budget back to a special town meeting in both towns and assuming passage there, a 2nd override vote in both towns.
  3. Re-certify the prioritized budget. Not sure about how the process would work for this option—would you have to go back to both towns or just Ashburnham, and could you go straight to a ballot vote or must you hold a special town meeting first? The school committee is currently consulting with lawyers and MA Department of Elementary & Secondary Education to answer these questions.

Most school committee members were leaning towards option #3, re-certifying the prioritized budget, because:

  • Overwhelming “yes” in Westminster and very close in Ashburnham (lost by 24 votes).
  • AWRSD has created a Strategic Plan to back up their funding request.
  • The need is so great—we are so far behind now that even level services is a loss.

By law, the school committee must take action within 15 days of the failed override vote. The school committee will meet on Tuesday, June 27th at 6:30 PM in the Overlook Middle School library to make a final decision. We encourage SOCS members to attend next week’s meeting to share their thoughts on which option would be best for our kids and communities.

Ashburnham residents should also consider attending next week’s Board of Selectmen meeting: Wednesday, June 28th at 6:30 PM at the Public Safety Building.

Finally, if you have a green and white lawn sign please contact one of us to arrange pick up.

Thanks so much for your interest and help.

Tiffany, Lori, Holly & Natalie