FITCHBURG — After Gardner Mayor Mark Hawke said in a letter he would withhold payment to Monty Tech, the School Committee will for the first time in over 18 years consider amending its regional agreement for the communities it serves.
Since last winter, Hawke has urged the 22-member Monty Tech School Committee to conduct a review of the regional agreement that outlines the relationship between member communities and the school.
“It’s surprising it took this type of measure to make them understand,” Hawke said Wednesday about the School Committee. “They’re doing everything they can to not do a full evaluation of the agreement, but this is a first step.”
An amendment up for consideration at next week’s School Committee meeting would change the date when local communities that send students to Monty Tech are sent a tentative copy of the budget for review, said Committee Chair Brian Walker.
In recent years, Hawke said he has been sent final copies of the budget after they were approved by the School Committee, giving little time for any discussion on the annual cost.
Hawke was encouraged that members of the School Committee’s policy subcommittee, during a meeting Tuesday night, indicated they would be in favor of changing certain aspects of the school’s District Agreement.
Hawke said he would be willing to continue paying his city’s contribution of the school’s budget if the changes are approved by the entire committee.
“From what I understand, they made a recommendation to fix some of it,” he said.
At bare minimum, he said he would like to get a copy “at least a few weeks in advance” of the committee’s vote.
Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale joined Hawke asking in an October letter to Walker that the regional agreement be updated.
“The city of Fitchburg provided $1.8 million dollars a year (to Monty Tech) paid quarterly,” he said. “You want to know what you’re getting for your money.”
The committee’s inability to provide advance copies of the budget had been part of what motivated Hawke to draft a Jan. 3 letter to committee members, in which he wrote “The City of Gardner will be escrowing any further payments until the school district comes into compliance with the District Agreement.”
As a result of this, the city is currently withholding an estimated $225,000, which represents the contribution for the third quarter of the fiscal year.
Hawke’s frustration with school officials not following the agreement has been ongoing for at least the last year and he has sent several letters to School Committee members in recent months about the issue.
In a Feb. 9 letter, he explained that the 52-year-old District Agreement, which outlines budgeting practices for Monty Tech and the 18 municipalities sending students to the school, had become outdated and suggested creating a new, separate committee to review and revise the agreement.
“Many of the policies and provisions of the district agreement are either antiquated, not being followed, in conflict with, or in need of adoption of, current Massachusetts State Law, or in need of replacement due to the change in time since the document was originally authored,” he wrote.
Hawke explained that the agreement currently requires municipalities be given tentative copies of the operating and maintenance budgets by Nov. 15, which he said has not happened in recent years.
According to Hawke’s letter, state laws supersede this part of the agreement. But Hawke also alleged that other violations are taking place.
He said his office is not getting detailed financial statements for the prior fiscal year and budgets for the current year by the Jan. 31 deadline stipulated in the agreement, and said he is “not aware of” any separate votes municipalities are taking to approve the money they send to Monty Tech, which he claims is required by state law.
Hawke’s proposed committee to review and revise the agreement was nearly approved by the committee in April 2017, when a motion was made to create a “District Agreement Ad Hoc Subcommittee to make recommendations for the next steps to the full Committee by June 2017,” but it was voted down in a 6-10-1 vote.
Similar letters requesting a review of the District Agreement have also been sent to Monty Tech from officials in Templeton and Winchendon, the community with the second-highest number of students currently enrolled at Monty Tech, according to that town’s records.
In February 2017, the Winchendon Board of Selectmen unanimously supported Hawke’s request to review, update, and revise the agreement.
“Much has changed in the nearly two decades since the Agreement was last amended. It it time the Agreement undergo a serious review with an eye toward considering potential amendments,” Board Chairwoman Barbara Anderson wrote in a November letter to school officials.
As Tuesday was only a meeting of Monty Tech’s Policy Subcommittee, Hawke said that he would wait to see if any changes to the District Agreement are approved at the meeting of the entire School Committee next week before he agrees to continue payment to Monty Tech.
Though Tuesday night’s meeting agenda mentioned an executive session discussion of litigation strategy in relation to Gardner’s non-payment, Hawke said that he was not worried there would be possible ramifications of withholding the money.
Chairman Walker explained why it was only recently that his committee took up the action of amending the regional agreement to reflect the realities of fiscal budgeting in the state.
He said his committee learned only last month that changing the dates at which communities receive provisional budgets would require only a vote of the school committee. Previous to this revelation, the committee was under the impression doing so would be a more time consuming and involved process.
“We were under the belief that in order to make the change in the alignment of the dates we would need to seek the approval of the Board of Selectmen or City Council of our cities or towns,” said Walker.