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Leverett Town Meeting debates school maintenance

Approximately 200 residents turned out in the Leverett Elementary School auditorium Saturday morning to participate in Leverett’s unique voting process. Leverett is the only town in Massachusetts that nominates and elects town officials from the floor of Town Meeting. Once a candidate is nominated, he or she is voted on by “ayes” and “nays” from the audience.

The elections went quickly, with no contested races and few new faces elected to town government.

Tom Maczka replaced Donald Robinson for a three-year term on the Board of Assessors. Fay Zipcowitz will return as the town’s assistant moderator and Chuck Dauchy and Michael Fair will return to their positions on the Board of Health.

Jim Lyons was re-nominated for a constable position. Steve Nagy was nominated by Don Gibavic to replace Gibavic on the Finance Committee. Elaine Barker and Georgie Schmid will return to their positions as library trustees. Kenneth Kahn won another five years on the Planning Board. Peter d’Errico was re-elected to the Select Board, Lisa Stratford will continue as town clerk and William Stratford will continue as tree warden.

Sheila Hunter was nominated to the School Committee, apparently without her permission. Hunter, who is the former principal of Leverett Elementary School, accepted the position with coaxing from the audience.

There was no nominee for the second seat on the school panel. The Select Board and School Committee have the authority to appoint someone to the position until the next Town Meeting.

Budget talks

At the center of the budget discussion was a debate between the Select Board and the School Committee over who would control the budget for custodial services for the school.

In the 2014 budget, the Select Board proposed to move the school custodian salaries into the budget line for town building salaries.

The elementary school budget proposed by the Select Board was $1,492,575, which represents a 13.8 percent decrease. The budget proposed for school custodians’ salaries ($96,987) was moved to a separate budget line for town building salaries that would be controlled by the town.

The Select Board proposed this change out of concern about maintenance of Leverett Elementary School. In the past year, the school reduced its custodial staff from three janitors to two, after the retirement of head custodian John Cusnik. The Select Board wanted to move the budget for all the school custodians into a line controlled by the town so officials could ensure the hiring of a third, part-time janitor for the school.

This move was strongly opposed by members of the School Committee, who feared a loss of control over the school’s custodial staff.

During the meeting, Catherine Brooks, a member of the Leverett School Committee, proposed moving $149,000 from the town building and school building budget lines, controlled by the town, to the elementary school budget line, controlled by school panel and principal.

The School Committee felt the proposal to consolidate custodial services for the school and town under one budget line had not been “fully vetted” and required more discussion before it could be voted on at Town Meeting. Members were concerned the principal would not have ultimate “hiring and firing” power over the custodian.

Aaron Osborne, a member of the School Committee, said the decision to cut the janitor was made in response to pressure from the Select Board to keep a flat budget.

“The school has had flat budget for the past five years,” said Osborne, “And the cuts have been coming from areas other than the custodial staff.”

Select Board members Julie Shively and Peter d’Errico expressed concerns that if the budget was kept under the control of the School Committee, the money for the third janitor’s salary could be re-allocated for different expenses.

“If the School Committee controls the budget, they can use that money for whatever they want,” said Shively. “It doesn’t have to go to hiring a third janitor.”

The question was called and the town voted by a show of hands. The amendment proposed by the School Committee was approved with 66 votes in favor and 48 votes against, despite “nays” from the entire Select Board and most of the Finance Committee.

The issue is not over, as Select Board members plan to propose consolidating custodial services within the budget again next year. School Committee members say they agree that control over some elements of school maintenance should belong to the town. However, they want to be included in negotiations with the Select Board.

The amended elementary school budget approved for 2014 is $1,642,362. The school building budget line is now $78,415, and the town building budget line is $210,883.

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