BVT town leaders meet to discuss budgeting
Member towns discuss concerns related to mandatory
contributions, admissions, charter relevance
By Theresa Knapp
On Oct. 26, the Hopedale Select Board hosted representatives from the 13 towns that make up the Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School district.
Member towns include Bellingham, Blackstone, Douglas, Grafton, Hopedale, Mendon, Milford, Millbury, Millville, Northbridge, Sutton, Upton, and Uxbridge.
In the invitation to the member towns, Town Administrator Mitch Ruscitti said, “The intent of this summit is to engage in a district-wide conversation about our individual and collective community needs, the role that the vocational school plays in meeting those needs, and the overall impact of bonded capital investments on our other public-school districts/systems. More succinctly put, there have been concerns expressed by constituents, boards, and committees across town boundaries regarding tough decisions about the use of funding sources.”
The 1.5-hour meeting was held at the Hopedale Community House.
As she welcomed the group, Hopedale Select Board Chair Glenda Hazard said, “Over the years I’ve heard it said that the 13 towns in the BVT district don’t really care how the rest of the towns in the district feel, and I called this meeting because I don’t really believe that’s true. There’ve been many times I’ve wondered how you all respond to financial constraints the majority of us are facing, and if there are other related concerns that we all share. To that end, I’m hoping that this is the beginning of a meaningful collaboration between all of us.”
“Tonight’s summit is a result of us having heard from many surrounding communities with a desire to discuss budgetary issues related to our vocational school. We feel this is absolutely in the spirit of the [BVT] charter.”
Hazard said that “BVT is a tremendous institution and one of best technical schools in the Commonwealth,” but noted that, like many other member towns, Hopedale “operates under a tight budget” and “must be responsible for every dollar we spend.” She said that, because of the nature of the state assessment process and the town’s resulting mandatory contribution, “we find ourselves forced to cut local programs and services in response to costs such as those related to BVT that we can’t control. This scenario makes it difficult, if not impossible, to invest in our own public school students, facilities, and operating and capital improvements without asking for additional revenues from taxpayers in the form of overrides.”
She said that, because of the timing of BVT’s budget-setting timeline and Hopedale’s fiscal process, “Historically, by the time our annual town meeting comes around, we’re told that BVT already has enough votes in the other communities to pass [its budget], effectively negating our vote. Generally, we are presented with a figure that would be Hopedale’s share without input from [the] local finance committee or Select Board and whether or not we feel we can afford it. This has been deeply concerning for both our local boards and our residents who tell us that they feel they are cut out of the process. We’ve heard that several of your towns feel the same way.”
Hazard said, “In Hopedale, we think that as towns included in the charter, we should all be able to determine what costs we can afford so that all students that reside in our towns are equitably supported. We often feel that Hopedale Public Schools are forced to cut, yet BVT hasn’t had to make the same kinds of sacrifices,” adding that Hopedale had to ask residents for an override for FY24 but still had to make cuts to the school budget while BVT’s budget increased.
“As an institution, we [Hopedale] believe that BVT should have to operate within the same financial constraints that each municipal budget does…We think it should be clear that the goal is to provide a great education for all students in our communities, whether they go to BVT or stay in our local schools. We want to be able to invest in programs and facilities locally at the same level that we invest at BVT.”
Bellingham Selectboard Chairman Michael Connor thanked Hopedale for calling the summit. “I think it’s an exceptional opportunity…This is one of the best ideas that’s come along.”
Connor said their per student costs for BVT students “are dramatically higher” than they are within the Bellingham Public Schools. He, in addition to other attendees, expressed frustration that local town budgets go through detailed scrutiny from town boards and taxpayers, yet the BVT budget does not.
“The budget process is what has really skewed me the most over the last 15 years. When the Superintendent of BVT comes into our town meeting, the votes are ‘locked up’ - the process to speak up has long passed…[and] it’s simply ‘pay up’ and I think we, as the communities of BVT, need to vet that process.”
As a possible solution for future consideration, Connor suggested each member town would calculate its own public school budget increase from one year to the next, and the average budget increase among the 13 member towns would be the increase BVT would also receive.
Connor said, “We’ve never had a choice as to what the BVT budget would be” and said Bellingham has some ideas for future forum topics.
Millbury Select Board Chairman Chris Naff told the story of a Millbury student who was interested in attending BVT and would have been well-served there but their academic record was not strong enough to be admitted into BVT.
“That story can be told again and again. And I think the problem we all face today is the very students that BVT was founded for no longer have the opportunity to go. That, to me, is a very big problem.”
“Our gracious host [Hazard] asked us not to disparage anyone tonight, but it’s a matter of fact that one administrator told the Town of Millbury to no longer send its ‘riff raff,’” said Naff, adding “That ‘riff raff’ are the very students BVT was founded for, and those students are being denied the opportunity they should have today.”
“Until some reform is done, which I believe has to take place at the state level, and that reform is much needed and would be heavy-handed, until that is done, the conversation at the municipal level is only going to become more and more difficult each year because I know as a fact that Millbury, and I think a lot of the communities like us, are becoming more and more tired of providing significant funding for what we believe to be a very significantly flawed system,” he said.
BVT Superintendent-Director Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, who has held the position for 31 years, was invited to respond. He pointed out he recognized many faces in the room “because I do make appearances at the finance committees, the public hearings, and the town meetings.”
Each year, BVT makes “a modest budgetary request which is inclusive of all expenses,” Fitzpatrick said. He detailed the items that go into the BVT school budget, reiterated his frequent offers for town officials to visit the school, and said the BVT building is a model that other vocational technical schools hope to replicate.
Fitzpatrick said, “The state doesn’t allow us to ask for equalized costs or assessments in order to comply with the 1993 Ed Reform Bill;” acknowledging that Hopedale and Bellingham have been at the latter part of the budgetary process; and said that, if two-thirds of the towns vote to support, then all towns are directed to honor the budget.
He said the BVT process is “very transparent;” the district is committed to collaborating with member towns; and said “it’s embarrassing to think” any of their students are considered “riff raff.”
Among the issues raised during the public comment segment were: revisiting the BVT charter which has not been reviewed since it was created in 1962; possible implementation of an admissions lottery; review of administrator and superintendent staffing levels, compensations, and benefits plans for BVT and the feeder districts; review of expenses related to extracurricular activities, campus amenities and student services for each district of BVT; review of admissions process; review of proposed capital projects; and agreement to a joint finance committee each year at which BVT makes one presentation to all member towns at one time.
Scott Savage of Hopedale, speaking as a resident and not a selectman, said, “It is my hope that the towns will reject the majority of the capital requests that BVT has put forward for next fiscal year. The town needs more time to review the need of these improvements and weigh the financial burden it will place on our own schools and town services.”
Neal Sherman, a public school teacher in Milford, said, “I am concerned that [BVT] is not serving the needs of the sending towns. I see students in the hallways every day who would be well-served by access to a technical education but right now 75% of the graduates from BVT are college-bound…I think that it should be revisited to consider whether or not the school is serving its mission and allowing access to a high-quality education to all students from its sending towns.”
Chris Naff of Millbury asked Supt. Fitzpatrick if BVT uses a blind-lottery admission system. Fitzpatrick said they do not. “We’ve examined the merits of that along with colleagues throughout the Commonwealth and did not feel it represented the best way to recruit.”
Naff noted that Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School uses a lottery. Fitzpatrick said Assabet is the only district in the state that uses a lottery, adding, “We’ve seen no results. We’ve seen nothing but turmoil. You’re not speaking to the staff of the system,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t want to badmouth any other system, but we would hardly follow the example that we’ve seen there.”
Matt Wojcik, Town Administrator in Douglas, said he was reluctant to make a comment earlier in the evening because “our frustration level with BVT in the past has been very, very high and it has not necessarily simmered down completely as we sit here,” but did note the agreement dates back to 1962 and can only be amended by unanimous vote of the member communities.
“If there’s anything we need to reopen in this governance agreement, it is that each individual town needs to have its own voice, elected by its own people. We live in America, we have a representative democracy, and it is only fair that it be done that way. This governance model has outlived its useful life. Period. It can’t continue like this.”
To watch the full meeting, visit townhallstreams.com.