Enrollment formula changes voted down in Heath for second year

The Jacobs Road Municipal Center in Heath.

The Jacobs Road Municipal Center in Heath. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By ANTHONY CAMMALLERI

Staff Writer

Published: 06-18-2024 3:15 PM

HEATH — In a roughly 20-minute continuation of May’s Annual Town Meeting, residents voted down three amendments to the Mohawk Trail Regional School District’s regional agreement that would change the enrollment formula used to calculate town assessments.

Assessments for each town in the district are currently determined by counting the number of students enrolled on a five-year rolling average. Depending on the ratio of students enrolled over those five years, each town pays its portion of the school budget. Currently, this number does not include School Choice students, charter students and students who enrolled in different districts due to special needs services that are not offered by Mohawk Trail. The revised agreement, if approved, would include these students in the enrollment formula.

Heath voted down the same amendments at last year’s Town Meeting. Then, at Annual Town Meeting in May, the matter was pushed to Monday after residents requested a quorum and only 54 out of the required 56 voters were present. Although seven of the eight Mohawk Trail member towns — Ashfield, Buckland, Charlemont, Colrain, Hawley, Plainfield and Shelburne — previously voted in favor of the changes, the amended agreement cannot go into effect without unanimous approval from all municipalities involved.

Reading a statement prepared by the Selectboard, member Elissa Viarengo said that Heath had a large number of School Choice students and students attending charter schools, noting that since the town does not have its own elementary school anymore, it has a large out-of-district student count that would significantly drive up the district’s education costs.

“Given our unique position in the district, if the Mohawk agreement amendments are accepted and the above minimum contribution is assessed on all students, it has been estimated that our town’s assessment will increase by over $135,000 per year, above ordinary increases in the school budget,” Viarengo said. “It is our position that this type of amendment does not serve us as a district, nor does it get to the root of the problems that we, as a district, are facing.”

School Committee member Budge Litchfield, who also spoke at Monday’s meeting, abstained from voting. He said in a phone interview Tuesday that although he thinks the revised enrollment formula is a fair way to count students and calculate municipalities’ school costs, Heath is left with a unique situation. Of Heath’s 45 elementary school students, nine attend Colrain Central School. He said that currently, in the event of a capital project, Heath is responsible for paying a percentage of the total costs equivalent to nine out of the total student body. Under the revised agreement, though, that proportion would increase to represent the full student body.

“It is not something that is intentional, or someone trying to screw Heath over somehow. It’s just simply a byproduct of this odd quirk of where our children are going to school right now. In my mind, this is not the right time to do this,” Litchfield said. “I was not going to vote ‘no’ against the votes of our seven partner towns in this school district. I respect their decisions. I think that foundational enrollment can certainly make sense for most communities, so what I’ve chosen to do instead is simply abstain.”

Although School Committee Chair Martha Thurber declined to comment on Heath’s vote against the amendments, she said that the school district’s next steps will largely be determined by the results of a sustainability study, a regional analysis of community-driven data that aims to better address the hardships faced by regional schools.

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“Whatever changes are made to the regional agreement would come as a result of the options that are put forth by the sustainability work,” Thurber said. “Whether that will include, or not include, these particular provisions, I can’t say at the moment. I don’t know, nobody knows.”

Anthony Cammalleri can be reached at acammalleri@recorder.com or 413-930-4429.