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Budget approved despite resident's objections to HWRSD assessment

Date: 5/21/2012

May 21, 2012

By Chris Maza

WILBRAHAM — Residents approved the proposed operating budget of $34.1 million for fiscal year 2013 (FY13), however, it was not without resistance from one resident.

After a budget presentation by Finance Committee Chair Susan Bunnell and a subsequent budget review by Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District (HWRSD) Superintendent M. Martin O'Shea, resident Daniel Fitzgerald called into question what he considered to be a high assessment for the school district.

Wilbraham is on the hook for slightly $20 million in its assessment to HWRSD after a 2.44 percent increase in local contributions according to O'Shea. That money, in addition to $7 million in local contributions from Hampden, $11.1 million in Chapter 70 aid and a little more than $1 million in Chapter 71 transportation aid make up the majority of the district's income.

Fitzgerald indicated in his presentation that he felt the town's assessment should be dropping, given the reduction in student enrollment.

In addition to O'Shea's admission that the district's enrollment would drop by 137 students in FY13, Fitzgerald presented slides illustrating a continuing trend of declining enrollment.

Fitzgerald first laid out a 7 percent drop in enrollment from 2000 through 2010, which he said was consistent with the town's census data regarding children younger than age of 18 in Wilbraham.

"That's a rather significant drop in that particular important age group," he said.

Despite the decrease in enrollment, he said, the assessment for Wilbraham rose 64 percent in that span despite a 55 percent increase in Chapter 70 aid during the same time period.

"I believe that a comment was made that as enrollment goes down, state aid goes down," he said. "Over the 10 years from 2000 to 2010, that's clearly not the case."

Fitzgerald also pointed out that HWRSD's enrollment will have dropped an additional 7 percent from 2010 to 2013. Meanwhile, he said, the town's assessment has increased by 7 percent.

"We will experience a drop in percentage [in enrollment] equal to what we experienced in a 10-year period. Our drop in under-18 population is accelerating," he said. "In this three-year period, we continue to see a decrease in enrollment and yet the assessment continues to go up."

Presenting information developed by the New England School Development Council, Fitzgerald projected that from 2013 to 2020 the drop in enrollment will continue.

"Their report shows that based upon a detailed set of assumptions, that our enrollment will decrease from the level of 3,359 by 9 percent," he said, adding that by 2020, the new Minnechaug Regional High School will house 1,079 students compared to the 1,250 that are anticipated to attend when it opens this fall.

Fitzgerald pointed to the drop in population among what he called "the breeding stock," residents between the ages of 25 and 34, decreased by 13 percent from 2000 to 2010.

Responding to Chapter 70 issues addressed by Fitzgerald, O'Shea pointed out that the formula used to determine the amount of state aid would be changing.

"In my presentation, I mentioned that it's based on a 1993 formula that the [state] Legislature is beginning to tackle," he said. "When the formula was developed, it really didn't reflect a lot of the realities we are dealing with. We are an entity that employs over 500 individuals and with that comes costs that are only indirectly supportive of the education of our students, including health insurance, special education mandates [and] new technology requirements."

Addressing enrollment and expenses, O'Shea said the two are not mutually exclusive.

"You can't make a one-to-one correlation between decline in enrollment and the assessment we ask from the two towns," he said.

With that said, he added that HWRSD has taken steps to cut costs in response to enrollment.

"We have been very aggressive, I think, in the district in taking some bold steps to deal with the decline in enrollment," he said. "We have cut teaching positions, we have cut support positions, we have cut administration and, most dramatically, we were forced to close a school building we all love."

O'Shea also pointed out that any projections on population and enrollment do not take factors such as "in-migration" into consideration.

In other budget matters, Bunnell stated in her presentation that the town has done very well financially in response to the cleanup after 2012's bizarre weather.

The town has received reimbursement of all but $60,000 of the $4.7 million bill associated with the June 1, 2011 tornado.

Wilbraham is on the hook for all of the $375,000 in cleanup costs from the July 26, 2011 microburst because it did not qualify for disaster relief because it was "narrowly contained."

While reimbursement has not occurred yet, Bunnell said the town anticipates a 75 percent reimbursement on the $5 million price tag the Oct. 29, 2011 snowstorm brought with it.

Residents also approved an extension of the town's lease with the Country Club of Wilbraham, which the club will use as collateral in an attempt to take advantage of low interest rates and refinance its debt.

A sum of $39,950 was also approved to be appropriated from free cash in order to construct a new communications tower as part of the renovation of the main fire station on Boston Road, replacing what then Board of Selectmen Chair Patrick Brady described as a 30-year-old telephone pole.

Rice's Fruit Farm came a step closer to being reopened as the Town Meeting approved a zoning by-law amendment allowing for a new usage called Heritage Farm Stand Development, which Planning Board Chair Eric Fuller described as a measure to revitalize farm stands that have since been separated from their attached source of produce.

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