School budget leads to lively debate, with a twist, at Westhampton TM

By Alexa Lewis

Staff Writer

Published: 05-13-2024 6:09 PM

WESTHAMPTON — In an unusual twist for any budget year, residents at Saturday’s Town Meeting gave serious consideration to voting down the town’s portion of funding for the Hampshire Regional School District.

Their argument? The town’s contribution to the school budget is too low and should be raised to an amount that better reflects the community’s value in schools.

While other residents at Town Meeting supported the idea of more funding for schools, they argued that doing so this year could create unwanted instability just as a contract with the school union is finally settled and as the district looks to hire top administrators.

The friction led to spirited debate inside Town Hall, where voters easily approved the rest of the town’s $7 million fiscal 2025 budget but hit a snag when it came to the proposal to fund the town’s portion of the school budget at $1.6 million, or 0.6% less than the current year. After a lengthy debate, residents opted to approve the school budget by a 64-13 vote.

Before the tally, Greg Reynolds, co-president of the Hampshire Regional Education Association, laid out the two potential paths that Town Meeting voters could take. They could vote down the proposed budget and advocate for amendments raising its dollar amount, but he cautioned that the other towns in the district may not approve the amended budget.

Instead, he encouraged Town Meeting to vote in favor of the budget for the sake of security, and to spend the next school year advocating for a more comprehensive fiscal year 2026 budget.

A new union contract also weighed into Reynolds’ thought process, as HREA and the Hampshire Regional School Committee last week officially settled a long-debated contract. The new deal contains historic cost-of-living adjustments and family leave policies that he didn’t want to put a risk if voters turned down its portion of the school budget.

Meanwhile, Hampshire Regional’s Business Manager Mickey Buhl also encouraged a vote in favor of the budget.

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“I think it’s a huge risk to the school to vote this down,” he said, raising concerns that the current candidates hoping to replace himself and Superintendent Diana Bonneville could rescind their candidacy in the wake of a budget that is rejected.

The school committee offered the interim superintendent position to Albert Ganem two weeks ago and is continuing to work with MASC to find a permanent replacement for Bonneville, according to Don Willard, chair of the All Districts Committee. Ganem has yet to ink a deal with the district for next school year, officials said.

Buhl cautioned voters to play it safe, saying that “this just isn’t a good year” for major budget changes, because “the leadership positions that would have to lead the district through a downvote are about to be vacant.”

Despite the potential for instability that voting down the budget could bring, several community members spoke passionately against the budget.

Mary Cleary found the budget far too low, saying, “I urge the committee to come back with a budget that reflects our values.”

Bill Tracy echoed this sentiment, calling the budget “irresponsible,” and expressing doubt about claims that it wouldn’t impact the daily lives of students and educators.

Peter Cleary, who serves on the committees for Westhampton Elementary and Hampshire Regional Middle and High School, worried that putting off a higher budget would only mean further delays.

“In terms of whether this is a good year — this pattern is going to continue,” he said. “There isn’t going to be a ‘good year.’”

Tom Cleary, chair of the Hampshire Regional School Committee, said that the problem came down to a “lack of leadership [in the central office] and a lack of trust in the numbers.”

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Voters also approved the borrowing of up to $127,680 for the purchase of a photovoltaic energy generation system to be constructed on the roof of the Public Safety Complex. The electricity generated by the system is expected to cover all of the building’s electricity costs and then some, paying for energy at other municipal buildings such as the Town Hall using the solar energy credit that comes with extra energy generation.

In addition, residents also approved the purchase of a wheeled excavator for the town’s highway department using $295,000 from free cash, and upgraded municipal computer systems using $15,000 from free cash. Finally, residents agreed to transfer $5,000 from free cash into a fund for the town’s 250th Anniversary Celebration, to be held in 2028.

Alexa Lewis can be reached at alewis@gazettenet.com or on Instagram and Twitter at @alexamlewis.