FITCHBURG - Blindsided by the Gardner mayor's decision last week to withhold funding for Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School, the school is checking into the legality of the move, the superintendent said.
Gardner Mayor Mark P. Hawke, who has been seeking an update since last winter of the school's governing agreement with participating cities and towns, wrote to the Monty Tech School Committee chairman Jan. 3 that the budget planning timeline wasn't being followed and “the city of Gardner will be escrowing any further payments until the school district comes into compliance with the district agreement.”
The 22-member school board voted not to discuss Mr. Hawke's initial request for review of the regional agreement last February, and sent his subsequent request, made in October, to a policy subcommittee.
The October request from Mr. Hawke, in a letter that was also signed by Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale, said the school's regional agreement is out of compliance with state law and needs updating. The last amendment to the document was 18 years ago, the letter said, and it is need of a “comprehensive review.”
The regional agreement, more than 50 years old, outlines obligations between the school district and the 18 cities and towns it serves. Monty Tech is the second largest regional vocational school in Massachusetts.
Mr. Hawke's Jan. 3 letter to school board Chairman Brian J. Walker said Gardner and other member communities had not received a tentative operating and maintenance budget request from the school committee for the next fiscal year by Nov. 15 as required in the the regional agreement, which also calls for a budget to be adopted by Dec. 1. The school district was in violation of its contract with member communities, the letter said.
Superintendent Sheila M. Harrity said this week she was surprised by the Gardner mayor's take on the budget process.
“It was on the docket for January,” Ms. Harrity said. “It was a bit of a surprise to hear that Mayor Hawke was withholding funds for the budget approved last year to run the school for this year because he’s looking for next year’s budget numbers. Withholding funds is brand new. I found out about it Thursday (Jan. 4).”
The school contends that state law supersedes language in the regional agreement, Ms. Harrity said, and Monty Tech is doing what it has done for 25 years and what all other school districts in the state do: provide budget requests to cities and towns in January after the governor releases his budget figures.
The School Committee has also received similar letters requesting a review of the regional agreement in the last few weeks from the Winchendon and Narragansett Regional school districts, Ms. Harrity said. So far, only Gardner is withholding payments to the school, she said, but Winchendon School Committee member Gregory S. Vine is requesting Winchendon selectmen follow suit.
“The subject of the (Winchendon) letter was not included on the agenda of the Monty Tech (full) school committee in either December or January,” Mr. Vine said. “Given the fact that these three communities (Fitchburg, Gardner and Winchendon) send the largest number of students to Monty Tech, I felt it was a slap in the face to our cities and towns that the topic was apparently being ignored.”
Mr. Vine said he would like to see the agreement reviewed for several reasons, including when the budget is provided to member towns and also to change the way students are selected from contributing school districts.
“At present, vocational schools are allowed to choose students based on five criteria, among them academic standing, discipline records and absenteeism,” he said. “This basically allows them to choose only the highest-performing students among applicants.”
He said he believes the process “leaves students behind,” who would benefit from a vocational program and state law prohibits member districts from offering vocational programs that mimic those at the vocational school they belong to.
However, Mr. Walker said the School Committee reviewed the admissions process a few years ago and allowed public input. No substantial changes were made, he said, and no one has come before the committee requesting another review of the admissions process since.
Mr. Walker said he disagrees that the School Committee ignored the issue of reviewing the regional agreement.
“The whole intent of the issue going before the policy subcommittee was for it to be a collaborative effort and for a level of transparency as we moved through the process,” Mr. Walker said. “It seemed like we were going in a good direction and we invited officials from the towns to our meeting next week (Jan. 16).
“Then, Mayor Hawke sends the letter out about withholding funds. It put a little something on the spirit of collaborating. It was almost out of nowhere. We’ve been keeping him informed with the process and it caught many of us off guard, for sure. It is frustrating and I hope we can work through this,” Mr. Walker continued.
Mr. Hawke said his decision to withhold payments has nothing to do with Monty Tech staff, students or the superintendent.
“The School Committee has refused to act in a judicious manner with regard to updating the outdated agreement,” Mr. Hawke said. “I have no idea what a thorough update and review of the regional agreement would produce. I do know it is a document that was written in a different day and age. It is so old that no one, including Monty Tech, actually has the first amendment.”
He said, “The issue is with the School Committee as a whole and their refusal to listen to the four largest sending communities’ wishes to update the regional agreement … Currently, Monty Tech does not notify any of the communities of anything, which I find unfortunate and not within the guidance of the regional agreement. The cities and towns should have advanced notice of the budget and what it contains and provided the opportunity to have input.”