During a two-plus hour meeting that saw members talking out issues facing Rochester Memorial School in Fiscal Year 2014, the Rochester School Committee issued a blistering response to recent criticism from the Board of Selectmen about the district’s budget.
Chair Michelle Cusolito read from an “Open Letter to the Residents of Rochester” that she wrote on behalf of the Rochester School Committee. In, Cusolito chided the Selectmen for “continu[ing] to disrespect our committee by discussing school business at BoS meetings and airing complaints through the press instead of talking to us directly. Since the BoS has no authority over the School department, we contend that discussing school business at a BoS meeting, especially when no school officials or School Committee members are present, is inappropriate.”
Cusolito referred specifically to Selectman Richard Nunes, who blasted the Old Rochester Regional School District’s budgetary practices and RMS’s decision to fund a tuition-free Full-Day K – which he called “disturbing and shocking” – at a June 17 meeting.
“If we had required an additional funding sources for tuition-free Kindergarten, we would have spoken to town officials,” Cusolito wrote. “The fact is that we are able to fund the program within the budget already approved at town meeting. Therefore, Mr. Nunes’ stated concern that the kindergarten change was not brought before the town FinCom or Town Administrator to determine a funding source is irrelevant.”
Cusolito addressed the concerns of Nunes and others at Town Hall about the Rochester School Committee’s transparency.
“Our discussion about full day Kindergarten happened over a period of months, always in open meetings,” she wrote. “We will continue to work with town officials to create a mutually respectful environment that will best serve all of the citizens of Rochester. Members of the Board of Selectmen, like all members of the public, are encouraged to attend school committee meetings, especially if there is an issue that should be brought to our attention. Meetings are held at Town Hall on the first Thursday of each month at 6:30 pm.”
Later in the meeting, ORR School District Superintendent Doug White, also a target of criticism from Nunes, told members that the District would continue to provide all documentation – including contracts, invoices, purchase orders, and reports – to Rochester and its residents by standard practice or upon request.
Elsewhere on the agenda, the Rochester School Committee approved intra-budget transfers totaling $76,733 to help fund tuition-free Full-Day K. In addition, White announced that the District and Committee would have to monitor a roughly $17,000 spike in the transportation budget, as Rochester’s responsibility for its students at Bristol County Agricultural High School would include the need for an upgrade from a van to a bus. Students from Rochester who study at Bristol are funded via the RMS budget.
Member Sharon Hartley initiated a discussion about charging the YMCA a building-use fee for its afterschool programs taking place at RMS. Currently, YMCA pays nothing to Rochester for use of its facilities, while such towns as Marion receive significant fees, according to White. Hartley said that it is only fair Rochester receive payment, as well.
Most members agreed, and White told them he would begin exploring a solution.
As its current agenda drew to a close, the Rochester School Committee charted out those big-ticket items that could potentially be included on upcoming ones:
November/December: MCAS results; January: Initial Budget Review; January/June: School Lunch Statement; February: Approval of Chair’s Annual Report, Interim report on School Committee progress toward goals, Approval of School Calendar, Budget Approval (public hearings); May/June: School Committee Reorganization; May: School Choice Public Hearing, Internet Safety Public Hearing, Administrator Contracts; June: Approval of new School Committee goals.
But the school year has only just begun. The committee also congratulated new RMS principal Derek Medeiros for his first week on the job. Reports from students have been positive, said several members, as well as parents in the meeting audience.
“The school year did open very smoothly,” Medeiros said. “There were no issues or concerns. There was a good energy.”
The next Rochester School Committee meeting is scheduled for October 3.
By Shawn Badgley