Yarmouth Selectmen Support New Regional School Agreement

YARMOUTH – The Yarmouth Board of Selectmen is supporting a proposed new regional agreement for the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District.

The new deal, which lessens the burden for Yarmouth and increases costs for Dennis, was approved last week by the regional school committee.

The agreement would have Dennis cover 35 percent of the costs of the proposed new regional middle school and gradually increase the town’s share of operating costs over the next five years to a fixed 65-35 split.

The school committee has been working over the last few months on the new agreement to relieve the tension between the two communities.

Yarmouth Selectmen voted in January to sue the school district over the process used to win approval for the new middle school, which bypassed town meetings and passed by just 25 votes during a district-wide vote.

The legal action could jeopardize $44 million in state funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

District school officials must sign a letter of commitment with the MSBA by April 11 to secure the funding. The letter of commitment cannot be completed if litigation or a threat of legal action remains.

Officials in Yarmouth previously said they would drop the lawsuit if a new regional agreement is approved by both towns this spring.

Selectman Mark Forest said the agreement is not perfect but is a substantial step forward.

“I look at this agreement as probably the fairest agreement I’ve seen,” Forest said.

“And I think it’s a significant and honest effort to try to bring an end to what has been an incredibly contentious and difficult chapter.”

Forest said he is anxious to get this chapter behind the board so it can move on to other issues facing the town.

Selectmen criticized the agreement’s process for updating the agreement in the future. The agreement states that it may be amended from time to time.

There are three ways of making changes which include the school committee chair calling for a subcommittee to draft an amendment, proposals from the majority of the school committee, or by a petition signed by 10 percent of registered voters in the district.

Some Yarmouth selectmen were hoping for a review every three to five years and required mediation.

There were also disappointments that the proposal did not include a recall provision for school committee members.

School Committee member Brian Sullivan told the board that lawyers for the school district said the state would not allow a recall provision.

Selectman Tracy Post asked if the agreement was a take-it-or-leave-it proposal and Sullivan said the proposal was not up for negotiation.

Yarmouth Selectmen voted 4-0 with one abstention to recommend the agreement to town meeting despite some disagreement on aspects of the proposal.

Selectman Norm Holcomb said the proposal lays a basis for moving forward.

“I also know that if everybody came out thinking it was great somebody would be unhappy,” Holcomb said.

Sullivan said while he was working on the agreement for the school committee subcommittee he was aware that the agreement needed to be passed in both Yarmouth and Dennis.

“I’m a Yarmouth member and I’m trying to get the best deal for us and I was aggressive at first because I thought that was my responsibility,” Sullivan said.

“But I also have to consider the fact that on the other side of the table this has to pass in another town and this is going to be a difficult vote for [Dennis]. They are going to be asked to pay more money that they don’t have to pay if they just vote no.”

The new agreement approved by the school committee included some housekeeping, including the removal of outdated language, making some language gender neutral, and removing schools which no longer exist.

The major changes were made to how the communities share operating and capital costs.

Current operating costs are based on the number of students each town sends to district schools.

The new agreement would use the foundation formula, which counts all students for whom the district is financially responsible, including charter and school choice students. The formula does not include private or parochial school students.

When the current agreement was approved 20 years ago charter and school choice did not exist.

The operation costs changes would also gradually increase Dennis’ share over the next five years. The proposed split for the 2019-2020 school year would be 68 percent for Yarmouth and 32 percent for Dennis.

The Dennis share would then increase by 1 percent each year until 2024 until the split is fixed at 65-35. The percentage would hold in the third year to provide relief for Dennis.

The new agreement would also divide capital costs, such as new schools, at 65 percent for Yarmouth and 35 percent for Dennis.

The change would increase costs for Dennis as the current agreement is based on enrollment.

If the new school is not built the agreement also states that each town would be responsible for 100 percent of the renovation costs for the school in their town. The renovations would be required for the Mattacheese Middle School in West Yarmouth and the Nathaniel H. Wixon School in South Dennis.

The agreement requires approval from the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and town meeting voters in both communities.

The Dennis Board of Selectmen has not yet discussed the proposal.

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