School budget tops busy Town Meeting agenda in South Hadley

South Hadley Town Hall

South Hadley Town Hall

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 05-05-2024 10:39 AM

SOUTH HADLEY — A zoning change to allow multifamily housing in the town’s business district along major corridors, a town budget encompassing a new Department of Human Services, a feasibility study for a new elementary school, and a school budget that proposes the elimination of at least 24 staff positions will be discussed at this year’s annual and special Town Meetings scheduled for Wednesday night at South Hadley High School.

First up is a special Town Meeting, which starts at 6 p.m., where residents will be asked to address outstanding expenses from fiscal year 2024, including snow and ice expenditures, utility bills and deductibles. Voters will also consider giving $25,000 to continue the town’s contract with ValleyBike, a short-term bike rental service that is poised to relaunch at the end of May.

Immediately after the special Town Meeting, residents will consider a 28-article warrant that presents an operating budget of about $56.4 million, nearly $2.1 million, or 3.94%, higher than the current year’s budget. Lumped with the town’s operating budget is a $25.5 million school budget that coincides with the layoffs of at least 21 paraeducators and three teachers.

Despite the position cuts, the school budget proposes an addition of 13 positions, including 10 educational therapy assistants, one assistant principal at the high school, one teacher of the deaf and one certified nursing assistant.

According to Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Business Operations Jennifer Voyik, the district is still determining the exact number of layoffs that will occur after several staff members in recent weeks have either retired or resigned. Voyik said the number of paraeducator layoffs will likely decrease from 26 to 21, leading to a new total of 24 staff reductions.

Mosier feasibility study

Residents will also decide whether to fund a feasibility study for Mosier Elementary School as part of the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s program to build a new school. The study would provide a detailed look into the condition of the current building, first built in 1969, and investigate the site of the new building. It would also calculate cost estimates to build a new school.

The study is a tool for the district and residents to decide whether to build a new elementary school for grades one through five, or build a larger school that houses both elementary and middle school students.

Operating budget

The lack of increase in state aid for both the town and the school district is leading to significant changes in staffing and organization.

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On the town side, Town Meeting voters will decide whether to approve a plan to combine the Department of Recreation, Department of Veteran Services and Council on Aging into a new Department of Human Services.

Town Administrator Lisa Wong proposed the changes in February as a way to maximize impact of social and mental health services within new budget constraints. She said the new structure will allow the three departments to share management, grant-writing and fundraising services while also creating a collaborative environment to plan programs and outreach.

Capital spending

A proposed capital budget of $950,000, 12.2% higher than the previous year, will pay for a variety of repairs, replacements and new equipment. The two most expensive items include two new vehicles in the police department at $135,000 and a new culvert at Elmer Brook at $375,000.

The three capital items totaling $602,000, as well as $750,000 for trash and recycling carts, are expenses previously discussed at the wastewater and trash public hearings in the middle of April. The Department of Public Works will begin a long list of upgrades to the town’s wastewater system with a channel grinder, transformer upgrade and bypass for the Main Street pump station.

Bylaw, zone changes

In March, the Planning Board endorsed a petition to allow multifamily housing in Business A1 District, which currently prohibits any sort of housing. The petition, submitted by owner of Liquor Town Himanshu Patel, will add mixed-use residential housing described in the town’s Housing Production Plan.

Requirements in the amendment for mixed-use residential housing in Business A-1 include a minimum parcel size of 2.5 acres where 50% of the property remains open space. Density limits are set at 12 units per acre and they must be located on a major street like Route 33, Route 202, Route 47 or Route 103. The amendment does not mention affordable housing.

With the criteria outlined, only six of the 88 parcels qualify in the district for residential housing under the amendment.

Several enforcement bylaw amendments outline punishments and enforcement mechanisms for violating local ordinances. Unless a penalty is already stated in a bylaw, residents who break general bylaws will be warned on first violation, fined $100 on second violation and fined $300 on each violation after. An addition of a municipal lien will allow the town to enforce the fines by adding them to property tax bills, treating an unpaid fine as an unpaid tax.

Bylaws that trigger a municipal lien or local fine include violations of the town’s general bylaws, zoning bylaws, state sanitary codes, building codes, trash and recycling fees, and personal property taxes.

At a previous Select Board meeting, Wong explained that many of the town’s local ordinances in general bylaws outline what behavior would violate these bylaws, but do not detail any fee, fine or punishment.

Part of the changes to enforcement bylaws will repeal enforcement of lawn care from the nuances bylaw to allow residents to plant more local species of flora and grasses on laws.