Easthampton councilors mull giving city more control over school budget 

  • Easthampton Municipal Building FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/16/2022 10:59:45 AM
Modified: 7/16/2022 10:59:20 AM

EASTHAMPTON — In the wake of a particularly contentious budget season between the School Department and Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, the Finance Committee intends to discuss whether the city should adopt a statute that gives the city more control over the school budget.

Near the end of May, LaChapelle delivered a proposed $48.5 million budget for fiscal year 2023, which included a $17.89 million budget for the school district, a 4.63% increase from the previous fiscal year.  Her proposal, however, was approximately $560,000 less than the school district’s proposal of $18.45 million, which represented a 7.91% increase from the previous fiscal year.

Discussions on the matter grew heated as many parents, teachers and staff spoke in favor of the School Department’s proposal and voiced concerns about the possibility of losing as many as eight staffing positions in the district. Two protests also were held with regard to the budget. 

In the end, the two governing bodies agreed to collaborate through a nonbinding “good faith” statement on June 15 and LaChapelle’s proposed budget was approved by City Council without changes. The agreement, which was signed by LaChapelle, City Council President Homar Gomez and School Committee Chairperson Cynthia Kwiecinski states that the School Department will pay to operate the district with level services. It also states that the School Committee and City Council intend to form a joint committee of their respective finance committees, which will meet quarterly with the goal of furthering understanding and communication between the two elected bodies.

Amid those discussions, Precinct 1 Councilor James “J.P.” Kwiecinski put in a request to have the City Council adopt Chapter 329 of the Acts of 1987 of Massachusetts General Laws, which gives the City Council more control over the school budget.

But the opportunity to discuss the matter was almost dismissed.

Precinct 5 Councilor Dan Rist, who serves as chairperson of the Finance Committee, put through a motion to remove the request at the July 6 council meeting citing guidance from the city’s attorney. In his opinion, the attorney said that the statute was in direct conflict with the city’s charter, according to Rist.

“Thus, the city attorney is very clear and his opinion seems bulletproof to me. And if the council were to adopt it now, we would be in violation or in conflict of our charter, leading to a potential legal action by the mayor,” he said. “The City Council and mayor had a court fight in Springfield, which lasted three years and cost the taxpayers thousands. I don’t think we want to go there.”

Rist said adopting the language would mean making a “fundamental change” to city government, which was originally designed to be mayor-centric.

“The budget authority the charter gives to the mayor is designed to give the only elected official that is a full-time employee with a financial team that is well aware of the budget needs of all departments. Thus, changing this, in my view, would require a ballot charter change as it takes away budget authority from the mayor.”

Following Rist’s statement, Kwiecinski reiterated his desire to discuss the matter in committee before bringing it back to the full council.

Precinct 3 Councilor Tom Peake, who also serves on the Finance Committee, told his fellow councilors that the opinion brought forth by Rist was not an opinion of the Finance Committee.

“I want to say that this is the first I’m seeing of this and we have not had an opportunity to meet to discuss this in committee at all,” he said.

At-large Councilor Brad Riley said that while he had seen the comments from counsel, he agreed with his fellow council members that there was no issue in holding the conversation.

“With just the intensity and emotional outpouring from the public related to this issue, I believe we owe it to the public to at least have the conversation and hash it out and see exactly what it is in an open and transparent forum,” said Riley. “I think that would be good for the public to have on the record.”

Rist asserted that his motion to remove the request was because it would mean the city was in violation of the charter, meaning that the Finance Committee would be discussing something that cannot be adopted. He also noted that he didn’t feel comfortable discussing something that wasn’t possible and could lead to potential legal jeopardy.

“If that’s what the council prefers, I’ll withdraw the motion. … It’s obvious councilors want to continue to talk about this, but frankly, it’s a waste of time,” Rist said. “I will always abide by the majority of the council if you want to talk about it.”

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