HEATH – Mohawk Trail Regional School District officials say an undercount of 33 Heath students at Hawlemont Regional School in the 2020-21 school year resulted in a shortfall of $44,410 in Heath’s school assessment last year. Now the question is how do we close the financial gap?
A week before its annual municipal meeting, the Heath Selectboard withdrew the article of mandate requested by Mohawk for the city to pay this bill, for an earlier financial year. Finance Committee Chairman Thomas Lively said the city could not legally pay a bill from the previous year with money earmarked for the current budget year. He said city officials questioned Mohawk’s low enrollment numbers earlier — and that Mohawk or its business management service, TMS, should have caught the error sooner.
In February 2022, Mohawk/Hawlemont Superintendent Sheryl Stanton advised Mohawk member towns that Heath had only been assessed for 10 elementary students enrolled in Mohawk Elementary Schools and not for Heath’s 33 students enrolled in Hawlemont Regional School under an unusual Mohawk district agreement with Bruyère. This agreement, negotiated at the time of the Heath School’s closure, provided that Mohawk would pay tuition, transportation and special needs fees for Heath students to attend Hawlemont, and would be reimbursed by the Heath School Assessment.
The miscalculation of the low enrollment rate for Heath resulted in overcharges for five member towns, giving them a larger share of the district’s costs, based on erroneous enrollment rates. Stanton’s letter explained the error and corrected the other cities’ assessments. Mohawk is reimbursing these cities by deducting these overpayments from this year’s school assessments. These overpayments credited to member cities are: Ashfield $9,476; Buckland $12,231; Colrain $9,621; Plainfield $3,400; and Shelburne $9,713.
Superintendent Stanton and TMS Business Management Services were new to the district when enrollment numbers were compiled and at a time when many students were being homeschooled or sent to private schools due to concerns of their families regarding COVID.
“TMS had only been in place for a few months and had no idea that the Heath students attending Hawlemont were technically ‘Mohawk students,'” said school board chair Martha Thurber. “They looked at enrollment data from October 1st in Mohawk schools. There was no reason for TMS to review student enrollments at Hawlemont and know that Heath students should be included in Mohawk’s liability.
In April, the Heath Selectboard responded to Mohawk’s claim for the outstanding amount by asking for more information about how the error occurred and whether the business management company or school district should be responsible for the error.
In a May 3 letter, Heath officials said they were filing a request for public records including a copy of the contract negotiated between Mohawk and TMS, a copy of any liability insurance and/or bonds held by TMS, and complete Excel workbooks (not online copies) for fiscal years 2022 and 2023.
“What is at stake is that a member city be held responsible for the negligence of an independent business and district officials involved in this matter,” a letter from Selectboard to school officials reads. The letter says the city voted for the requested assessment last year “in good faith.”
“To then be able to return to a member city and request more funds, when another party is responsible for the error, demonstrates a lack of accountability,” the letter continues.
Thurber said the school district was not legally required to release its full Excel workbooks, which contain personnel information not relevant to Heath’s issue. “Our attorney says (Massachusetts Public Records Law) only requires us to provide the information – not this specific form.” She also said the mistake made by TMS did not meet the criteria for “negligence,” according to the school’s attorney.
Mohawk now hopes to reach an agreement with Heath for the city to pay the balance in installments, interest-free.
“We have accepted responsibility and apologized repeatedly,” Thurber said. “It’s unfortunate. But we don’t have any money of our own to pay for this. Hopefully we are moving towards a resolution,” she said.