The Municipal Relief Act of 2010 amended the provisions for expenditures from school-district stabilization funds so that only a two-thirds vote of the regional district’s School Committee is required. Before that amendment, expenditures from the stabilization fund required Town Meeting approval.
In voting to not recommend the article, members of the Chelmsford Finance Committee cited lack of control each community would have over the stabilization fund.
The Finance Committee vote March 24 drew the attention of Nashoba Tech School Committee members and Superintendent Judith Klimkiewicz, but what raised their ire happened a few days later.
Chelmsford Town Manager Paul Cohen sent an email to town officials in each of the district member communities explaining why the Finance Committee voted to recommend against its passage.
In his March 29 email, Cohen said Selectmen Chairman George Duffy asked him to inquire whether the member communities would want to meet to discuss the request.
“It would be helpful to have representatives of each town’s Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee at such a meeting, along with the Town Administrators,” Cohen wrote.
The email built hostilities among Nashoba Tech officials who thought Cohen and by extension, the town of Chelmsford, overstepped its bounds.
“Keep in mind that, every year, the stabilization-fund funding would be presented to towns, and they could vote up or down on it,” said Nashoba Tech School Committee Chairman Ray Riddick of Westford. “Once the funds are transferred to Nashoba Tech, I think the people who know best what the students of Nashoba Tech need are the people at Nashoba Tech. The administration and School Committee have a better feel for the needs of students and the capital needs of the facility than the Chelmsford School Committee.”
Added Nashoba Tech School Committee member Kevin McKenzie of Groton: “Asking for the meeting with no Nashoba Tech representation? That was overstepping their bounds. If they had requested representation from the committee and the administration, you’re dealing with a level playing field.”
Cohen said the meeting of member communities will not happen because the towns are busy with Town Meeting preparation. Even though Chelmsford selectmen will make their Town Meeting recommendations this week, Cohen suspects they will vote not to recommend passage of the article.
“I don’t know how it will go, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they oppose it,” he said.
Cohen said the Finance Committee also based its vote on the belief that Nashoba Tech has adequate reserves in its tuition funds and school-choice money. Therefore, the stabilization fund, which would be used for capital expenditures, is not necessary.
“For a district with a $10 million budget, you have $2.3 million in school-choice money and $1.1 million in tuition funds,” Cohen said in explaining the Finance Committee vote. “That means they’re holding $3.4 million in reserves, and now you want another cash reserve in a stabilization fund. Either the assessment requested of the town or excess funds should be returned to the towns. You’ve got enough reserves as it is.”
Klimkiewicz dismissed the notion that school-choice and tuition funds can be used for capital expenditures.
“You can’t use it for capital,” she said.
McKenzie questioned why Chelmsford funds its schools $3.5 million above net-school spending, but funds Nashoba Tech at the minimum required amount each year.
Said Klimkiewicz: “All I’m asking for is equity, nothing more. I’m just asking for my Chelmsford students at Nashoba Tech to be treated as residents. They’re important to me.”
Cohen said Chelmsford’s opposition to the stabilization fund is in no way a reflection of the town’s belief in the value of a Nashoba Tech education.
“No one disputes the fact that the district runs an efficient and cost-effective educational program,” he said. “We’re not making allegations on the quality of education or the management of the operation.”
McKenzie spoke angrily against the Finance Committee vote.
“I personally do not have confidence in the elected people in Chelmsford,” McKenzie said. “They are not willing to work with us. Chelmsford has the most students. Why didn’t they pick up the phone and call us?”
Klimkiewicz will ask the Nashoba Tech School Committee at its meeting tomorrow night for permission to make a friendly amendment to the article that would state that before any expenditures are made from the stabilization fund, with the exception of an emergency, the district will go to its member towns and explain the expenditures.
“If the roof caves in, we have to fix it,” she said.
Westford is the only town to act on the request so far, approving it last month.
Riddick, McKenzie and Klimkiewicz believe a majority of towns will ultimately approve the creation of the fund. They all want to put the debate with Chelmsford officials behind them.
“I’d rather it not be confrontational,” Riddick said. “I’d love to sit down with the folks from Chelmsford, who don’t seem to want to sit down with us. There are some personal issues that sometimes come into play.
“I’m not privy to how those things get sorted out, but I think the one thing Chelmsford has done is send out communication to the other six towns,” he added. “I think the other six towns are capable of thinking by themselves, and are able to sort out the issues and determine if they want to go forward with it.”
Klimkiewicz described the opposition as “a small minority of outspoken people.”
“I don’t even think they’re against Nashoba,” she added. “What concerns me is they just don’t see us as equals. We have needs, and I wish they would understand that. I truly believe that Chelmsford, in general, is extremely supportive of Nashoba Tech and always has been.”