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Over budget differences, committees meet but can’t agree

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SHIRLEY – The School Committee attended a November Board of Selectmen meeting to re-establish communication lines members say broke down after the Budget Committee last met in April.

The budget group – which consisted of the selectmen and representatives of the School and Finance committees – no longer exists. But the School Committee has called for at least one more meeting to settle unfinished business. Specifically, an agreement to evenly split the first $200,000 of new town or school revenue that came in after the 2009 Annual Town Meeting.

That unresolved accord came up but the main topic was the barrier between the school and municipal sides of town operations.

“There’s a wall let’s face it,” Deveau said, and may always be. But meetings between Town Administrator Kyle Keady and interim Superintendent Malcolm Reid can “open doors,” he said.

Deveau rejected the notion that similar sit-downs the two had last year bypassed the public meeting process. Outcomes from those meetings dovetailed into the budget group’s work, he said and there was nothing secret about them.

The same is true now, he said.

The first he heard of a communication gap was in the newspaper, Deveau said, and he acted immediately, meeting with Finance Director Evan Katz and Reid. “I had positive conversations with both,” he said. Assessor Ron Marchetti – acting in his volunteer role as transition manager – offered to follow up and help straighten matters out, he said.

The upshot is that the Keady-Reid summits have started up again. The two administrators meet every Tuesday and report back to their respective boards, Deveau said.

School Committee Chairman David Baumritter agreed it’s a step in the right direction, but said the boards still should meet jointly and the revenue split must be resolved. “We’re aware that funds are limited,” he said. “But we must keep up a constant dialogue” so that both sides understand the big picture.

Deveau said he shares that goal, but not via the budget group. Positives that came out of it will last, however, such as job descriptions for town employees and zero-based budgets, he said.

“I’m disappointed,” said longtime School Committee member Paul Wilson. “I felt that the Budget Committee last year brought everything out on the table in a public forum, but now we’re back behind closed doors.”

Selectman Enrico Cappucci said he favors meeting with the School Committee, but not in the tri-board set-up that framed the budget group. The Finance Committee provides “checks and balances” in the system, he said, and should not be at the table.

And if the budget group’s work prevented a rerun of last year’s seven-night Annual Town Meeting, a pre-packaged presentation was no better, he said. “So we present a lousy budget we agreed on and people voted for it.” Calling the Budget Committee a “think tank,” he said Town Meeting is the decision-making body, no matter how long it takes.

School Committee member Susan Therriault pressed for joint meetings, perhaps monthly. “We agreed that added funds would be exchanged and we need to discuss that,” she said. “It’s frustrating.”

Therriault said while the other board has no unreasonable expectations, it’s key to share information. “We want to know where you’re at, and to show you where we’re at,” she said. “There shouldn’t be a wall.”

“But there is,” Deveau said. “You live in a dream world if you think there isn’t.” He later apologized if his words seemed harsh. He doesn’t object to joint meetings, he said, but refused to be cornered into a set timeframe.

School Committee Member Laura Saldana said the issue shouldn’t be dropped. “I love this town, but this wall we have to stop feeding it with remarks and innuendo,” she said. “I’d like to get rid of the notion that parents don’t support the elderly, or the police” or other constituencies. “It’s not true,” she said.

As a resident, Saldana wants services and good schools, which should be viewed as a “rich resource,” integral to town growth. “It’s not schools versus town,” she said. “We should be unified. That’s my vision.”