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Special Town Meeting 2010

I take notes during Town Meeting. They are not official in any way. As I listen to people speak, I type notes. I’m sure that, at times, I mishear or misunderstand the speaker, but my notes represent what I hear at the time. I then publish the notes every night after the meeting. I do go back and make a few edits as errors are pointed out to me.

I do not try to reproduce my entire notes for this online version. Sometimes I relay a quote from a specific speaker. Most of the time I only summarize the discussion. At points I give a purely personal opinion; those are clearly labeled like this: Personal note.

8:04 the meeting was called to order.

Town Meeting Member Charlie Gallagher played the piano, leading the meeting in singing the National Anthem.

Moderator John Leone is looking for two more members of the Town Meeting procedure committee.

He swore in the two new Town Meeting members. They were greeted with a round of applause.

Moderator Leone noted that the School Committee was sitting at the front of the meeting at his invitation because of the content and importance of the special town meeting.  A jester suggested to me that they were seated that way so they could have a clear view of the rotten tomatoes that would be thrown at them.

Selectman Chair Diane Mahon moved the rules of the meeting, which were approved. (The rules basically say that only town meeting members and town officials and town employees can sit “on the floor” of town meeting. Meeting visitors should watch from the gallery above the floor.)

Town Clerk Rainville certified the meeting is legally called.

Mahon moves that the meeting comes back Wednesday if we don’t come back.

Mahon read a proclamation on Stratton’s recent selection as a Blue-Ribbon School.

Article 1 – Reports

Finance, Selectmen, Capital Planning, and School Committees all submitted reports.  FinCom Chair Tosti moves that the reports’ motions be made the main motions.  (This has the effect of giving most articles a main motion and speeds the process by making all the motions at once, and in writing.)  The article was tabled.

Article 2 – Budgets

FinCom Chair Allan Tosti explained that we’re in deficit for FY10, and this budget motion fixes that. He explained the creation of the additional reserves, partly from cutting the school budget further, and partly from dipping further into the town’s reserves, specifically the tip fee stabilization fund.   He said we didn’t want to go into the tip fee, and will try to return it. The reserve fund is for all town budgets, not just schools, not just town manager. This is a moderate position, he said.

School Committee Chair Curro spoke. He talked about how we’d gotten into this mess, the changes the town is making to prevent it in the future, and talked about the FY11 budget.  I really liked his speech. He clearly acknowledged the failures of the school department leadership in budgeting and communication. That clarity has been lacking in many other discussions by the school department. That acknowledgement goes a long way in my mind. It gives me reason to believe that they are going to make progress in implementing the changes that are necessary for a high-performing, well-managed school department.

Treasurer Stephen Gilligan made a substitute motion. He wants to cut the school budget, but he does not want to dip into the reserves. His first argument was that the Finance Committee had previously objected to spending reserves. He’s correct, we did say that, but time has passed and facts have changed since then. Secondly, he suggested that FinCom expects FY11 to be a repeat of FY10, and that $200,000 is not sufficient for the task anyway. Mr. Gilligan was incorrect – we never suggested that FY11 will be a repeat of FY10; we simply said that FY11 is very tight.  Last year there were three $400,000 swings in special ed budgeting, two in the wrong direction, one in the good direction.  We increased the reserves to handle that type of repeat – of course there is no guarantee that it is enough. He made two further arguments, one that there is no rush to do this, because we could do it at a special town meeting in April. He also said that bond rating agencies will look on this as a failure to manage our reserves well. I think both of these arguments are reasonable ones. They didn’t persuade me, though.

Gordon Jamieson suggested that the finance committee’s path is down the middle of the issue and he supported it.

School Committee member Joe Curran spoke. He said that the School Committee was not following its own words.  I paraphrase: “If the school committee followed its words, we wouldn’t be here, and we wouldn’t be in a lawsuit.” He noted that no one has been reprimanded. He mentioned a number of negative issues the school committee has been a part of.

Joe Tully spoke in support of Treasurer Gilligan’s motion. He reviewed the school department mistakes, as outlined in the auditors’ reports description of the errors. Tully wanted to know who knew what and when.

Paul Schlictman gave a long lecture about budget cuts and state spending. He blames the problems in the FY10 budget on failure to properly fund the schools on a town and state level.

Bill Hayner, former teacher spoke. He deplored the ongoing litigation. He said that if this was a business, the CEO would be fired, and so would the board. He called on the entire school committee to resign and stand for re-election.

John Deyst, Finance Committee member, pointed to a specific part of the fincom report detailing FinCom’s feelings. He said that the school department needs to be a participant in the management of annual reserve funds, unlike past years. He wants to preserve the good educational successes of our school systems.

Josh Lobel asked a question about why not put this into a special education reserve fund. Al Tosti replied that the school committee already refused that option, and that it made sense to pool reserve funds. Lobel made the point that the school department is not wasting money. It was noted later in a private conversation that this was the only question of the night – everything else was a speech.  Very unusual.

Dean Carmen moved to terminate debate. 143-40 it was terminated (not sure I heard that number right).

Gilligan’s motion went down 86-100.

FinComm recommendation vote passed 2/3 by voice vote.

9:25 called a 10 minute break, returned at 9:39

Article 3 – Thompson Land Swap

Joe Curro proposed a resolution as a substitute motion. Board of Selectmen and School Committee and Finance Committee all endorse the resolution. It doesn’t refer to the land swap, nor the cost of the project. Joe Curro says that this is the strongest supportive action Town Meeting can make. Chris Loreti is concerned that the plan is too expensive. He’s voting no because he doesn’t think any of the discussed options are viable. Clarissa Rowe said that the support is more important at this time – no one will be supporting these prices, but this support is the right step to move the process forward. Ruderman terminates debate. Motion passes. There’s no chance that a building of $350/sq ft will be recommended under this resolution.  That would never get past the Board of Selectmen, let alone FinCom.  The challenge here is that there is no guaranteed path to a school renovation/rebuild – there are lots of parties involved, and they move toward agreement and each other in baby steps.  This resolution was a baby step that takes us closer to an eventual solution and millions in state assistance.

Article 2 again

The moderator said that article 2 was a 2/3 vote, and as such needed a count since it wasn’t unanimous. I think he’s incorrect – I don’t think he needs a count, he can rule on a 2/3 voice vote if he chose to. 155-3.

Article 4 – Stratton

Capital Planning Chair Charlie Foskett explains that we’re spending roughly the same amount as originally planned, and when we originally planned. However some of the items have very long lead times. This vote enables us to order things earlier without actually spending the money earlier. No discussion. Passed 161-0.

Article 5 – GIC

Al Tosti reported that the Finance Committee supports a vote of no action. No action. This was a topic of much debate at the Finance Committee meeting tonight.  Several members wanted to keep this item open until next Monday, until after the various unions hold their votes.  There’s a couple of reasons for that – one is that the committee wanted to follow through on statements made this past April.  The other is fear that a union might repeat last year’s disaster and kill the deal.  In the end, the majority of FinCom decided to avoid inflaming the situation and let the article die.  Should a union kill the deal, it’s too late to salvage the issue this year anyway, and we’d take the issue up again in April.

Article 6 – Reserves

Voted no action.

The meeting was dissolved at 10:05.

I was pleasantly surprised that we got this all done in one night.  I had predicted two nights, and I’m delighted to be wrong.

I’m also pretty happy with how the debate on the school budget went.  I was on the list to speak.  If it got to me, I was going to remind people that there were only two options – the FinCom recommendation and the Treasurer recommendation.  The third option, to do nothing, was not an option at all. As it was, I think the discussion was terminated at an appropriate point.

In general, the debate was not about those two options.  It was a discussion about the school department, the school committee, choices made, and external conditions imposed.  I think that discussion was somewhat cathartic for the meeting.  A lot of people had a lot of things to get off their chests, and they did.  I think just about everyone had their thoughts aired by one speaker or another.  I hope this represents a turning point and we see the school department and committee earn our trust back in the coming months and years.