The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 17, 2010

Minuteman regional agreement concerns aired

At a meeting on December 13, several Finance Committee (FinCom) members expressed concern that a proposed new regional agreement for the Minuteman Career and Technical High School is not fair to smaller towns like Carlisle.

Small towns may pay more

Under the proposal, the 16 member towns would evenly split 48% of the capital costs for a school renovation, with 52% of costs divided according to the ratio of students sent to the school. Formerly, the entire total was to be divided according to each member’s student population. Superintendent Ed Bouquillon was on hand to defend the plan, which was put forward by a task force consisting of citizens of member towns. The school expects to have all members vote on the proposal at their Spring Town Meetings.

Non-members to share capital costs, encouraged to join district

The review of the regional agreement is in preparation for a state-approved building renovation project. Changes to the agreement are intended to encourage membership in the region and to include non-member towns in capital financing. The current agreement splits capital costs among members only, even though about 1/3 of students are from outside the district. By raising the cost of non-member tuition and sweetening the regional agreement, it is hoped some large towns can be enticed to join the district.

Multi-town task force unanimously supports changes

Bouquillon noted that a task force, with former Carlisle FinCom member Thornton Ash as a member, has met over the past nine months to look at the regional agreement. Ash was not in attendance at the FinCom meeting, but Bouquillon said that the vote of the task force in support of the proposal was unanimous.

In addition to the 48/52 cost splitting, a new minimum of five students will be used in assessing both the capital and operating costs for member communities. Carlisle has historically sent six to eight students, but could see per-student costs rise if fewer students elect to attend Minuteman.

FinCom member Dave Model believes the new assessment plan “is skewed to favor larger towns.” He added, “I can’t understand not going straight pro rata. From the little town perspective, it just doesn’t seem fair.” Dave Verrill agreed, “this is set up as a subsidy from the smaller guys.” Bouquillon argued the former agreement was opposed by large members because “they felt penalized for sending more students.” Minuteman School Committee representative Mariellen Perugini added, “We are under-utilizing this resource . . . a lot more than six kids (the current Carlisle enrollment) could be benefiting.”

Verrill was also concerned with the five-student minimum, “We should be allowed to get out (of the member agreement) if student population falls to one or two students.” Bouquillon said that the current procedure will be retained, requiring all 16 member communities to support any resignation. Model observed that the per-student cost at one or two students would be enormous, with an assessment minimum almost certainly above $100,000. Current Carlisle per-student cost is about $20,000 according to Bouquillon.

Member towns cannot leave easily

Perugini said that smaller communities have disproportionate power on the School Committee, which gives each community one vote, regardless of size. Model said, “The difference between less than 1/16 and 1/16 is immaterial.” He noted that Carlisle has no ability to influence outcomes, and suggested, “If you’re changing the math, there should be a one time opportunity to opt out.”

On the plus side, the Minuteman School Committee has discussed a plan that will see non-member operating assessments rise, with a portion of those funds dedicated to the capital project. This will reduce costs to member communities when compared with the former agreement. “We’ll have two years to build a stabilization fund before the project begins,” said Bouquillon.

Verrill said the overall impact of the new proposal is complicated to assess. “We need to look at the math” before deciding whether to support the changes. Bouquillon suggested that when taken as a whole, the proposal should not cost Carlisle much more than the old agreement. More analysis will be possible in January, when an enrollment study and strategic plan are complete. Bouquillon said the goal will be unanimous passing of the new agreement by all member towns, and it may be revised if that goal is not met. In addition, the MSBA is reviewing the proposal, and might approve more funding if the number of member towns can be increased.

Carlisle’s task force rep comments

Task force member Thornton Ash was reached by phone after the meeting and provided his perspective. He noted a goal of the task force was to make it attractive for out-of-district towns to join. Adding new towns to the district would be very beneficial to existing members as a major capital project is anticipated. “We wanted an algorithm that would get costs down for everybody,” he said.

Ash said he had proposed an opt-out clause, but the task force felt it was beyond their purview to open up that aspect of the agreement. He added, “Carlisle has a history of being supportive to the school system” and would want to “do what’s right” for the financial health of the school. “I was very, very impressed with the task force,” he adds. “They knew this stuff in and out.” He also points to improvements at the school and credits the superintendent with “getting enrollment up and costs down so it is attractive for other towns to come in. They’re doing a great job.”

At the meeting Monday, Bouquillon said the school is currently in negotiation with teachers and FY12 budgets have not been prepared. The goal is to keep the operating budget at a 1% increase. With the drop in Carlisle enrollment from 7.5 to six, there should be some budget relief in FY12 for Carlisle. ∆

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