To The Editor:
Theresa Whitman, School Committee Chair, reminded us at the recent joint finance committee meeting, “When the two towns formed a Regional School district, they essentially formed a third municipality within both towns.” It seems as though the Finance Committee members from Essex have become confused as to their appointed roles in this relationship.
Both town finance committees serve as advisory boards. They are appointed committee members whose sole purpose is to make recommendations on all articles of a financial nature for voters at town meetings. They have “free access” to all TOWN financial records, but when it comes to the school district, they work through their elected representatives on the School Committee to influence budgets. This clear delineation maintains the integrity of each organization but acknowledges the importance of each town’s role in funding the District. The Regional Agreement clearly states the powers and duties of the District as follows: “The Committee (School Committee) shall have ALL (emphasis mine) the powers and duties conferred and imposed upon regional school district communities by law and by this agreement and additions thereto or may be conferred and imposed upon it by any applicable general or special law.”
At no point in the Regional agreement does it mention member towns' Select Boards or Finance Committee having ANY power or duty over the district. However, since the district’s inception, it has worked in concert with each town, knowing that it is the largest portion of each town’s overall budget.
About ten years ago, a collaborative committee made up of representatives of each town’s finance committees, select persons, town administrators, the MERSD superintendent and business manager, as well as a school committee representative was formed. This committee met and discussed what was happening in each community budget-wise. It was enormously effective in planning, collaborating, and problem-solving between the two towns.
Unfortunately, this collaborative effort has stopped due to questions related to open meeting law. In spite of the concerns, the District has committed to continuing these meetings in open session, but have not had full agreement from our member towns to meet openly. Yet, on Wednesday night, the Finance Committee of both towns held a joint meeting in open session with each other. The meeting was billed as an opportunity for the two boards to talk about school budget funding strategies. Because there was not one elected representative from the District or either towns’ Select Boards at the table, this joint Manchester and Essex finance committee meeting was incredibly inappropriate. Having district representatives present for these conversations is necessary for a productive conversation rather than speculation. The meeting went wildly off course when they discussed topics not within their purview: the future of Essex Elementary School, a MERSD review, and a ten-year plan.
The relevant elected boards must be a part of the agenda and the conversation. It would behoove all town boards and any efforts to problem-solve around this budget to revisit their respective bylaws and discuss their scope of authority. We need to do better!
Caroline Weld, Manchester