$12.14M school budget draws discussion at Montague Town Meeting

Gill-Montague Regional School District Superintendent Brian Beck details the school budget for fiscal year 2025 during Montague’s Annual Town Meeting at Turners Falls High School on Saturday.

Gill-Montague Regional School District Superintendent Brian Beck details the school budget for fiscal year 2025 during Montague’s Annual Town Meeting at Turners Falls High School on Saturday. FOR THE RECORDER/AALIANNA MARIETTA

By AALIANNA MARIETTA

For the Recorder

Published: 05-05-2024 1:29 PM

Modified: 05-05-2024 1:30 PM


MONTAGUE — Residents backed monetary requests for the airport, ongoing litigation with FirstLight Hydro Generating Co., and design work for library repairs or reconstruction at Saturday’s Annual Town Meeting, while also discussing whether the school district’s fiscal year 2025 budget can support its needs.

The roughly $12.14 million Gill-Montague Regional School District budget passed unanimously following an impassioned discussion about whether the money is enough.

Finance Committee Vice Chair Dorinda Bell-Upp said the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the challenges teachers must face without proper support from the budget. She claimed the lost year of in-person schooling led to a surge in mental health crises in kids and a lack of ability to learn independently and regulate their emotions.

“Teachers are faced with more disruption than ever before. With a bare-bones number of staff to support these students in class, classrooms are loud and more chaotic,” Bell-Upp said, referring to the six vacant paraprofessional positions and one elementary school teaching position brought up by Gill-Montague Superintendent Brian Beck.

Bell-Upp said the school budget doesn’t reflect these gaps and the burden on staff.

“Everyone is doing the best they can,” Bell-Upp said, “and it’s still not enough to support the students.”

After resident Shannon Martineau mentioned that the district lacks substitutes, forcing principals to fill in, Beck added, “or superintendent.” In response, Martineau urged the district to ask for more.

“When you come to town, know that if you don’t ask for it, nobody is asking for our students,” Martineau said. “Let the town decide where we put our money if you guys ask for what we need to give our students what they deserve.”

FirstLight litigation

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Residents also approved allocating $260,000 for legal fees to prepare the town to face FirstLight in a hearing before the Appellate Tax Board.

Town Administrator Steve Ellis said the company has contested its assessed value since fiscal year 2013.

“Our value of their total assets is $141 million. I can tell you that we have some very definitive indications that they believe their assets are worth a fraction of that — we are tens of millions of dollars apart,” Ellis explained.

According to Ellis, Director of Assessing Karen Tonelli met with FirstLight “numerous times” in an attempt to reach a compromise, but “what is very clear right now is that they’re not willing to come to the table.”

In an email on Sunday, FirstLight Communications Manager Claire Belanger wrote, “To characterize either side as unwilling to compromise is untrue.” She added that representatives from the company and town met several times over the past few years “in good faith” to trade settlement proposals and try to find a solution, but “remain far apart on our valuations, making settlement difficult.”

Belanger also attributed this difficulty to her impression that “both sides have equal conviction in our own values as determined by external appraisers.” To resolve the dispute in valuation, she said the disagreement must now move to the Appellate Tax Board.

Ellis said the $260,000 request in Article 15 pays for the restatement of appraisals for fiscal years 2022, 2023 and 2024, and all related court proceedings to prepare for their testimony in late December.

“We’re hoping that the town of Montague, showing its seriousness of purpose, that it believed in the values of its independent appraiser, and that it has the wherewithal to challenge them in court … we’re hoping that this will prompt movement and perhaps we won’t have to spend all this money,” Ellis explained. “But we absolutely need to give this community the opportunity to represent ourselves properly in court, otherwise we risk a catastrophic loss.”

When asked about the probability of Montague’s success, Ellis said, “I think the best thing we can look to is our own history.” He referenced a similar value dispute between FirstLight and Gill and Montague in 2013. According to the Appellate Tax Board’s decision published in December 2018, the Appellate Tax Board rejected FirstLight’s claims that its value was lower than assessed and that its property was overvalued in FY13.

“Saying that, I feel we have every reason to believe that our appraisal is accurate,” Ellis assured residents.

In response, Belanger said FirstLight “strongly disagrees with the characterization that we are underreporting the value of our assets.”

“We simply do not agree with the value the town of Montague has placed on them,” Belanger wrote.

Belanger added that FirstLight has paid its taxes in full at the value assessed by the town since 2013 “while seeking relief at the Appellate Tax Board,” a move Belanger described as “the only remedy available to us.”

Airport spending

Town Meeting members’ passage of Article 7 allocated $419,677 to the fiscal year 2025 operation of Turner Falls Municipal Airport, which Ellis previously said has faced a “huge stumbling block” in the wake of an unexpected $16 million cost to install a solar array on its property that would generate roughly $152,261 in annual revenue.

In response to resident David Jensen’s question concerning the future “cost versus benefit” of the airport, Selectboard member Matthew Lord said its “long-term fate” is unclear but he sees revenue solutions on the horizon.

“My takeaway is there is no easy fix in terms of more airport operations,” Lord said. “It’s going to be folks who are involved in the airport, who care about the town, coming up with creative solutions.”

Bell-Upp echoed Lord, saying, “We need to give the airport time to recover, and we will be closely scrutinizing this during the next budget season to make sure they’ve developed these new sources of revenue.”

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In a vote of 46 to 24 in Article 12, residents approved using $175,500 to repair and upgrade the Hillcrest Elementary School pavement and sidewalks. During discussion, voters opted to change the funding source from borrowing to capital stabilization, which Ellis said has a balance of nearly $2.24 million.

Attendees also voted unanimously to allocate $150,000 toward the planning and design of the Carnegie Public Library. Library Director Caitlin Kelley outlined the three potential fates for the library: updating the current building, rebuilding it or moving the library from 201 to 232 Avenue A.

Kelley stressed that public outreach, including forums to hear town voices, is built into the $150,000 budget.

The town also approved a $578,120 slate of Department of Public Works projects, including the purchase of a 20-ton trailer and a 10-wheel dump truck, tractor repairs, sewer manhole lining and sewer pipe relining, and First Street alley paving, all in addition to $296,000 for repairing the Town Hall parking lot.