Months of back-and-forth admonishments – mostly via letters and the local media – between Town Hall and the Rochester School Committee regarding budgetary matters boiled over on Monday night at the Rochester Board of Selectmen meeting.
School committee members held a last-minute meeting on Monday morning to formulate a plan for funding an additional Rochester student’s attendance at Bristol County Agricultural High School. In a longstanding accounting quirk, the cost of sending Rochester residents to Bristol Ag is baked into the Rochester Memorial School budget, and has historically allowed for as many as 10 students. For Fiscal Year 2014, however, that line item was dropped to eight students, and with a ninth needing tuition and transportation, the School Committee was in search of an additional $33,860.
Their plan? Asking the Board of Selectmen hours later to add an article funding the additional student’s education to Fall Town Meeting Warrant – a document whose deadline for article inclusion was two weeks ago.
Complicating matters was the recent acrimony between the two boards, as on June 17, Selectman Richard Nunes blasted the Old Rochester Regional School District’s budgetary practices and Rochester Memorial School’s decision to fund a tuition-free Full-Day K – which he called “disturbing and shocking,” as The Wanderer reported at the time.
Rochester School Committee Chair Michelle Cusolito responded with an open letter chiding 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.”
On Monday, four School Committee members were present, and Rochester Town Administrator Richard LaCamera did not mince words in criticizing their handling of recent budgets. He pointed out that a $49,000 surplus in the FY 13 Bristol Ag budget was spent on FY 14 supplies instead of returned to the town, and that other surpluses are, in his estimation, poorly documented or were transferred haphazardly. In addition, LaCamera questioned the School Committee members on staffing issues, particularly one teaching position that was restored to the budget after having been previously eliminated.
“That’s $53,000 to a teacher brought back who wasn’t supposed to be brought back, and $11,000 in health insurance costs,” LaCamera said. “These are real dollars we’re talking about. … That’s an $11,000 deficit [for the town’s] health insurance. Are you going to pick that up?”
As Rochester School Committee members scrambled for a response, occasionally interrupting what amounted to a lecture, LaCamera pounced.
“You wouldn’t let me talk before at your meeting, so I’m talking now. With all of these issues that have just happened within the past couple of months, I think you can live within your budget,” he said. “If there’s money left over in the budget, you turn it back over to the town. I do that, and my department heads do that.”
School Committee members disagreed with several of LaCamera’s calculations and conclusions, but ultimately agreed that their budgeting was in line for potential reforms. They argued that RMS’s budget should no longer be responsible for Bristol Ag students, but that for now, there is a student whose education needs demand funding.
“The budget is a living, breathing object,” Tina Rood said. “We are asking for an increase based on an expense the town said they would cover. … The cost of the Bristol Aggie students should not be impacting education of elementary students in Rochester.”
Selectman Chair Naida Parker argued that RMS had benefitted from the Bristol Ag surplus in the past.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Nunes chimed in.
Parker said the predicament was in part a result of the lack of communication among the officials – including Old Rochester Regional School District Superintendent Doug White – in recent months.
“It has been a tough four months in terms of communicating with your board,” she said. “It has been extremely frustrating.”
School Committee member Sharon Hartley agreed.
“It has been really troubling to have this discord,” she said. “It’s not good for anybody. Let’s try to have a fresh start.”
That fresh start began with a compromise. Although Parker lamented the precedent that it might set in terms of future late additions to Town Meeting warrants, she was the deciding vote in agreeing to ask Rochester for $18,860 at Fall Town Meeting on November 25. Selectman Brad Morse joined her, while Nunes dissented. That figure represents the cost of tuition for the Bristol Ag student; for the $15,000 transportation cost, which the Selectmen agreed was “exorbitant” in its spike from past appropriations and lacking sufficient documentation, the School Committee is on its own.
Elsewhere on the agenda, the Selectmen also approved several other articles for Fall Town Meeting, including the Community Preservation Act and the Flood Plain District. In addition, LaCamera received authorization from the Selectmen to launch the interview process for a part-time Town Planner.
The next Rochester Board of Selectmen meeting is scheduled for November 4.
By Shawn Badgley