HARVARD -- Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School District, located in Westminster, serves 18 member communities, including Harvard, each of which pays an enrollment-based annual assessment to cover its share of the district's operating costs.
Annual Town Meeting accepted the town's $75,000 FY2013 assessment as part of the omnibus budget, which was presented in Article #5 and passed without discussion Saturday morning.
It was a different story when it came to endorsing a stabilization fund for the school. Although the motion passed, there was some opposition to the idea and the Finance Committee recommended against it.
The request to establish the fund, Article #41 on the warrant, was moved up on the roster and considered right after the omnibus budget.
Monty Tech Superintendent Steven Sharek spoke for the motion, which sought to establish a stabilization fund to pay the costs of capital repairs, renovations and improvements, "in accordance with Mass General Laws."
In a routine move at the start of the meeting, Moderator Robert Eubank asked for and got a blanket endorsement for several non-resident town officials or employees who might or might not have something to say about town business addressed in the warrant. The list included the town administrator, fire and police chiefs, DPW and finance directors, the superintendent of the Harvard Public Schools and Sharek.
Sharek, to begin with, said thank you to Harvard for approving the Monty Tech budget, along with other member communities. Now, he hoped they'd do the same for this request, he said, characterizing the establishment of a stabilization account as a common business move. "You have one," he said of the town, as do all of the other 17 municipalities in the vocational school district. "You also have free cash, which is like our E&D, or unspent funds account, which comes from revenue," he said. "That's our check book."
But unlike the municipalities, his school district doesn't have a savings account, Sharek said. State law allows it, but only for capital expenses and only with approval from the 18 member communities. That's what the proposed stabilization fund is for, he explained, citing state educational and municipal organizations that recommend it, including the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools.
After considering pros and cons, the Monty Tech School Committee also agreed the district should have a stabilization fund, Sharek said.
Although major renovations would still be brought to the district's members for approval, there are smaller projects that might need doing quickly and that the fund could cover. Roof vents, for example. There are 49 on the school building, costing $100,000 each. Using an energy services grant, the district is repairing or replacing the vents piecemeal, he said, but if one of them unexpectedly goes, it would pose a problem. "How would we pay for it?" he asked.
That's why the district wants to start saving up for contingencies by putting funds into a stabilization account, starting in 2015, say $25,000 to $50,000 per year, with the total split among member communities. But first, the fund must be established. "It's strictly for capital improvements" and there's no added cost this year, Sharek said.
"I'm not here to pick your pockets," but to create a "prudent, responsible" budget for the school.
The Finance Committee didn't buy it.
FinCom made no recommendation on the article as it appeared in the warrant, citing lack of information, but by Saturday morning, the committee had decided to advise against it, member Steve Colwell said.
One reason was lack of a "policy statement" about use of the fund, which FinCom didn't have during its deliberations, he said.
Besides, the need was not clear. The district's E&D (excess and deficiency) fund can take in up to $1.2 million, with $600,000 salted away now, Colwell said, and the district could double it without creating a stabilization fund.
Bruce Nickerson, of Stow Road, asked about process. How would the funds be released, for example?
It would take a two-thirds School Committee vote to spend the money, Monty Tech Business Manager Terri Drew said, which is no small feat with so many voices and diverse views on the board.
The district does have the option of banking "unanticipated revenue," Drew continued, but since it has now reached the level of spending required by the state, "there's not much savings there." The stabilization fund, however, would "actually budget some dollars" in usable reserves, she said.
Despite FinCom's recommendation, the motion passed by the required majority.