Schools and energy contracts discussed at Townsend Town Meeting

Outdoor town meeting leads to debates over reopening schools and negotiating contracts

Townsend Town Administrator James Kreidler, left, and Town Moderator John Barrett at the town’s Annual Town Meeting in front of the Townsend Senior Center
Townsend Town Administrator James Kreidler, left, and Town Moderator John Barrett at the town’s Annual Town Meeting in front of the Townsend Senior Center

TOWNSEND — Calling this year’s Annual Town Meeting “heated” could be misconstrued as either an observation of the weather or the discussions had on Saturday morning.

It certainly was a hot day for residents to come out to vote on warrant items, so much so that the Townsend Town Meeting had to start 15 minutes late waiting for attendance to reach the 75-person minimum for a quorum. Nevertheless, residents sat in the parking lot of the Townsend Senior Center under a canopy tent for two hours to vote on 16 articles on two warrants. Residents voted to take no action on two of those 16 articles.

The first six articles to be voted on were from a Special Town Meeting warrant while the latter 10 articles were on the Annual Town Meeting warrant. Five of the six articles on the Special Town Meeting warrant were passed unanimously while Article One, which asked permission to raise and appropriate available funds in the treasury, had no action taken on it.

The two most-discussed items at Saturday’s meeting were both on the Annual Town Meeting warrant. The first was Article Three, which detailed the town’s fiscal year 2021 operating budget of $23.6 million. The biggest chunk of that budget was the $13.9 million meant for education, which prompted residents to ask about how exactly will Townsend students and staffers be going back to school (if at all) given the still-prevalent coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, North Middlesex Regional School District Superintendent Brad Morgan and Nashoba Valley Technical High School Superintendent Denise Pigeon were at the meeting to inform the public of the steps being taken.

Both Morgan and Pigeon said their staffers have been preparing three tiered plans detailing how the schools in the district can reopen in different ways. These include either having kids return to schools in-person with strict health guidelines, a hybrid model combining in-person and remote learning, or a completely remote form of education.

Morgan said he plans to present his plans to the North Middlesex Regional School Committee on Aug. 3 and is also set to start negotiating with the district’s teachers union starting this Monday.

Pigeon later added that her staff are working on a “similar timeline” as North Middlesex in preparing reopening plans.

Morgan said North Middlesex calculated a 3% increase to its overall budget from last year with a per pupil cost of “just under $17,000,” while Pigeon said Nashoba Valley Technical’s per pupil cost came out to just under $12,000.

Morgan also brought up bus travel for the coming school year, noting increased costs due to supplying personal protective equipment to school buses and purchasing disinfecting equipment.

The other hotly-contested item was Article Eight, which asked for voter permission for the Board of Selectmen to enter into one or more net metering credit purchase agreements with the owners of solar panel facilities for up to 20 years. According to an additional handout given to meeting attendees, approval of the article would allow the board to pursue a net metering agreement with Locke Brook Solar, which owns a solar farm off of West Meadow Road. If a contract is made and signed, the town would be in the agreement for 20 years with a projected 15 percent annual discount on the town’s electricity.

Both Deputy Town Moderator Gene Rauhala and Board Chair Wayne Miller emphasized to residents that this article didn’t signify the town was immediately entering into a contract with Locke Brook or any solar panel company, but merely allowing the Board of Selectmen to enter negotiations if they came about.

“There’s nothing on the table about a contract today,” Miller said.

Local residents including Lance McNally and Lisa Lewand still expressed concerns about the town entering into a contract with such a long duration on it and emphasized the need for thorough contract negotiations if that came to pass. This led to a motion from the public to take no action on the article. Even Veronica Kell, the newest member of the board, advised caution on the article.

“I’m hesitant to enter into a 20-year agreement to buy our energy from one place,” she said. “I think we should be looking at the overall picture.”

After lengthy discussion between the audience and town officials, the take no action motion was approved.