Easthampton school budget talks stall as mayor cites audit findings

  • Easthampton school community members rally outside the Municipal Building on June 2. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/8/2022 7:44:20 PM
Modified: 6/8/2022 7:42:12 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Discussions related to Mayor Nicole LaChapelle’s proposed fiscal year 2023 budget for the school district continue to be a push and pull between the mayor and the school department.

The mayor’s proposed $17.89 million budget for the school district is approximately $560,000 less than the school district’s request of $18.45 million. It represents a 4.63% increase from the current year’s budget, compared to the school department’s proposed 7.91% increase.

Last Friday, School Committee member Megan Harvey said that she and fellow member Ben Hersey requested to have a meeting with the mayor to understand what was going on and gain her perspective.

In a letter obtained by the Gazette, LaChapelle said she sat down with the two School Committee members and one unnamed City Council member “to try and reach an agreement rectifying the increase the School Committee asked for” and the increase in her proposed budget. The idea was that an agreement could be worked out that Superintendent Allison LeClair and LaChapelle would sign based on good faith.

However, that option appears to be off the table for now. Minutes before the start of the School Committee’s Finance Subcommittee meeting Wednesday, LaChapelle sent an email to members of the committee and City Council stating that after requesting the last three fiscal years of school department external audits, she was alerted to findings that are “wide-ranging” and bring forward a lot of questions.

“Given the extent of these findings, I cannot, in good faith, go ahead with last week’s negotiations, not genuinely understanding the fiscal condition of the school department,” her letter states. “I request the School Committee and City Council to support an examination level audit by a certified public accountant with specific experience with school and city audits. Additionally, I have asked for technical assistance from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue on how best to structure revolving, reserve, and circuit breaker accounts.”

LaChapelle further requested that the city and school department seek a review of current school finance practices by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education school administration and finance team.

 School Committee Chairperson Cynthia Kwiecinski told members of the subcommittee that she was shocked by the latest development.

“I’m floored that there is nothing returned on paper — you cannot vote to agree on a verbal agreement and have it be worth anything. There’s nothing you can do,” said Kwiecinski. “Megan, I can promise you tomorrow that I will give you a million dollars. … But there’s nothing in writing that the City Council or School Committee could look at. We literally can’t. We’ve got nothing.”

The School Committee had a meeting slated for Thursday that included a line item on the agenda to discuss a “budget shortfall solution” and vote, but Kwiecinski said there’s no reason now to hold that meeting.

Subcommittee Chairperson Marin Goldstein urged the City Council to vote down LaChapelle’s budget because it does not meet the needs of the city.

“She basically imploded it (the negotiations),” said Goldstein. “I don’t know what the point of this (Thursday) meeting is now because we have nothing to proceed with.”

LeClair also shot down the mayor’s assertions about the audit, saying the school department is audited every single year, and the mayor and City Auditor Hetal Patel have access to the annual report.

“I refute that there’s some idea that she’s received new information that we’re not doing things correctly,” LcClair said.

Ongoing tension

Discussions surrounding LaChapelle’s proposed budget for the school have grown contentious at several meetings and have led to two protests, held on May 29 at Nashawannuck Pond and outside of the Municipal Building prior to the June 2 City Council meeting. The standouts have included Easthampton Education Association members as well as parents and guardians, members of the community, and district administration.

Parents like Elyse Langer, who has two children attending Easthampton Public Schools, have been particularly vocal in criticizing the mayor’s budget proposal at public meetings and in letters to the City Council.

“I want to remind Mayor LaChapelle that these buildings were designed to host children and educators, which in light of today’s news is worth mentioning even more,” said Langer at the May 24 School Committee meeting. “I have eagerly voted for you every time you ran for mayor. Now I feel like my family and I, and all the other families in Easthampton are distractions and annoyances that take up unwanted space in the buildings that you are so proud of. Please prove me wrong.”

At the June 2 meeting, councilors proposed withholding approval for supplemental appropriations until an agreement is reached between LaChapelle and the school district.

“I am deeply concerned about the situation with schools,” said Councilor At-Large Koni Denham. “I want to make clear that I am disappointed with leadership on both sides.”

“We have the money. Teachers shouldn’t be worried if they have a job,” said Councilor At-Large Lindsey Rothschild.

Councilor James “J.P.” Kwiecinski had also requested the council reconsider a vote from a past meeting regarding an $89,864 supplemental appropriation from free cash toward the purchase of a Tesla Model Y electric vehicle.

“I’ve heard people say: ‘Skip the Teslas and save our teachers.’ If I had known about the budget carrying forth with a reduction in teachers as put forth in the budget, I would have found it impossible to have voted for the Tesla.

“Prior to that, I believed there was funding to save our teachers and the mayor was putting forward that budget to do so,” he said. “That being said, I will be very uncomfortable approving any supplemental appropriation that takes money away, potentially, that could have been used for teachers in our school system.”

Kwiecinski has also put forward a request to accept Chapter 329 of Acts of 1987 of Massachusetts General Laws, which would give the City Council more control over the school budget and has received support from school district staff members. His request has since been sent to the Finance Committee.

In the meantime, the City Council will be holding a public hearing on Wednesday, June 15, at 6 p.m. to act on the proposed fiscal year 2023 municipal operating budget.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.

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