REHOBOTH — The state is moving to take over the financial management of the Dighton-Rehoboth Regional School District because of Rehoboth’s inability to pass its part of the budget.
It is believed to be the first time in the Attleboro area — at least in recent memory — that the state has planned such drastic action for a school system.
Three town meetings — the spring annual town meeting and special town meetings in July and October — failed to approve a school budget for the fiscal year, which began July 1. That prompted the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to inform school and town officials of its takeover plans.
“In the event a local budget is not adopted by December 1, 2019, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education shall establish a budget for the year and shall assume fiscal oversight of the district,” Associate Commissioner Jay Sullivan recently wrote to town and school officials.
Once the state sets the final district budget, the school district must calculate the assessments charged the two towns to cover the spending plan.
“The member communities will be obligated to appropriate their respective assessments based on this budget and make payments to the regional school district consistent with the payment schedule outlined in the regional district agreement,” Sullivan said.
The state department’s fiscal oversight will remain in place until the end of the fiscal year or until the member towns have approved a budget for the following fiscal year, whichever is later.
The schools have been operating under a monthly budget based on last year’s spending, with some increases allowed by the state. That has allowed the reinstatement of sports and other extracurricular activities as well as the restoration of four administrative positions.
State officials are asking for input from residents, school and town officials by Nov. 18 to help them set a new budget. That input would include information on other sources of town or district revenue that may be available to support the school budget, the district’s outstanding debt and expenditures, and how that compares to prior years.
“We will be drafting a letter” to the state, school committee Chairwoman Katherine Cooper said Wednesday, following a Tuesday school board meeting.
Town officials say the state takeover would not occur if the school committee had voted at the meeting to accept the appropriation approved by the voters at the May Annual Town Meeting, as selectmen had advocated.
“It is very unfortunate for all involved,” selectmen Chairman Gerry Schwall said.
Accepting a 1 percent budget decrease and making an additional $700,000 in cuts following the Oct. 29 special town meeting vote is not an option, Cooper said, noting school officials have already reduced their initial budget requests over $900,000 “to no avail.”
Those earlier reductions have produced a budget carrying a mere .66 percent increase, which represents a $289,000 hike for both Dighton and Rehoboth on a $44 million budget, Cooper added.
The Rehoboth Finance Committee had recommended a $614,000 increase in funding, with $613,000 the state mandated increase, she said.
“Schools cannot function at minimum and still have art, music, and sports,” Cooper said.
Finance committee Chairman Michael Deignan disputes financial figures from school officials.
The committee has recommended an increase of $1 million to $18.9 million over last year’s $17.9 million appropriation to the district, he said.
“This represents an amount in excess of $3.4 million above the amount the state indicates we must contribute to the regional district,’ Deignan said. “This amount has now been voted on three occasions by residents of the town, and residents of the town have shown overwhelming support for the finance committee’s recommendation.”
Deignan noted that at the July 16 special town meeting, 838 — or 82 percent of a record 1,025 residents in attendance — supported his committee’s recommendation.
That vote, however, was taken with the assumption a special election to request a tax hike through a Proposition 2 1/2 override was going to be scheduled. That election was canceled after selectmen and school officials reached a compromise to request more money at an Oct. 29 special town meeting.
“As an elected official, I encourage Ms. Cooper to listen to her constituents and support the amount they have voted to appropriate to the regional district, rather than disregard their wishes and put the district through the unnecessary burden of financial receivership by the state,” Deignan said.
A joint meeting for Rehoboth and Dighton residents that was scheduled for Nov. 2 to try to resolve the ongoing budget saga was abruptly canceled by school officials after discussions with the school district’s legal counsel and state education officials.
That district-wide “tent meeting” would have come days after the Oct. 29 special town meeting, where a majority of 507 Rehoboth residents voted against adding $330,405 more to the school budget. Finance committee members backed the rejection.
A hangup was an additional $60,000 that school officials said the state was requiring from Rehoboth, but town officials disputed that.
Rehoboth’s current assessment from the school district comes in at $19.36 million, while Dighton’s runs $10.54 million, with state aid kicking in the remainder of the $45 million school budget.