An almost nine-month long debate over a finance agreement between the Milton school and selectboards concluded late last month with far less animosity than when first proposed.
The boards approved facilities use and financial services agreements at a Jan. 29 joint meeting at the town offices. Both parties expressed appreciation for the other’s input and a desire to work together moving forward.
First up on the agenda was the facilities use contract, which reflects the cost to the school district when town recreation programs use school facilities.
The town will now pay the district $2,000 annually, plus extra for events held outside normal business hours, covering the cost for custodial, cafeteria and/or maintenance staff onsite. The fee will cover the length of the program and 30 minutes before and after the event.
According to the agreement, these additional fees will not be billed for free events such as the winter festival and community concerts. When using school fields, the town will be assessed $35 per hour.
Selectboard chairman Darren Adams said he’d prefer the recreation department assess the appropriate fee for each program, because it’s hard to predict whether these costs would amount to $2,000 a year. It would make more sense, he said, to tack the added cost onto each event fee.
Superintendent Ann Bradshaw disagreed, saying the district considered recreation coordinator Kym Duchesneau’s research on what other rec departments pay their school counterparts and came to a “fair number.”
“We went back and forth, and we spent a great deal of time on this,” Bradshaw said.
Town manager Don Turner told the Independent this will likely mean a spike in costs for participants. The increase won’t be significant, he said, but it could be a $3 to $5 increase per course depending on the program and participants.
The agreement’s terms will begin July 1 and will sunset June 30, 2021. School trustee Cathy Vadnais asked if it could instead be a one-year agreement to allow room for change.
The suggestion was shot down because the agreement already calls for periodic meetings with the town manager, superintendent, facilities supervisor and recreation coordinator to review the deal.
“It still means that we can communicate well with each other,” selectman John Cushing said. “If we got problems, we gotta be able to sit and talk about those issues, and I think this is a good start.”
Either party may terminate the contract. Doing so before December 31 would nullify the agreement on July 1 of the following calendar year.
The same start, end and termination dates apply to the financial services agreement. But officials will instead meet each May and December to review efficiencies. According to Bradshaw, the district gained a lot of understanding while exploring the shared contract.
In 2017, the district hired auditor Cindy Koenemann-Warren from Lynn, Lynn, Blackman and Manitsky to study possible efficiencies in both the district and town finance offices. At a Nov. 13 school board meeting, Koenemann-Warren presented the report, which district business manager Don Johnson said cost the district about $3,500.
Currently, the town performs payroll and accounts payable for the school. The district wanted to know if it could save money by hiring an in-house finance employee, who would also perform administrative tasks at the Herrick Ave. district office.
Koenemann-Warren said she was impressed with the district and town partnership and found employees had high integrity in the system.
She said the murkiness in the current agreement was how much the school should pay for town services. If the district were to bring someone in-house, Koenemann-Warren said it may save some money but a lot would be lost in transition. She said the two parties needed predictability, not an implementation dip.
Per the new agreement, the district will continue to reimburse the town for the cost of the financial services it provides. The contract outlines what those services are, as well as what the duties do not include.
The annual reimbursement currently rounds out around $160,000. Turner said he expects next year’s amount to be just about the same.
“This agreement essentially outlines what we’ve been doing, which I think makes everything much more clear,” Turner said. The last document the two parties penned was in 2000.
The new agreement states the district business manager and town finance director will meet at least once per year to discuss performance, and staff from both offices will participate in an annual job shadow exercise.
Once the boards signed the agreement on January 29, Turner gave finance director Jess Morris the green light to hire for the department’s vacant fiscal assistant I position. Morris began interviewing candidates after the boards came to a tentative agreement in December.
Trustees from both sectors then moved to a discussion on initiating a joint facilities committee.
“Instead of just looking at what you need and what we need, we look at what we all need,” Turner said. “Because again, it’s all the same taxpayer that we work for.”
He suggested a one-year effort to identify both long-range facilities needs and community desires and how to accomplish both with limited resources. The group would meet once a month and include a selectboard and school board member, town manager, superintendent and two residents.
Cushing said he’d rather research debt service and liability information for the capital plan first, but agreed working together is beneficial.
“It’s all of us,” he said. “This is our community. This is our home. And consequently by working together we can make some of these things happen.”
Selectboard vice-chairman Ken Nolan approved the concept, but said the board works better tackling topics as a whole and not in subcommittees.
Trustees decided to revisit the topic after Town Meeting Day, asking Turner and Bradshaw to craft a committee framework for the soon-to-be new boards.
The selectboard will also research possible charter changes, including whether the town treasurer should be an elected or appointed position.
Turner said he’s pleased with the renewed collaboration, noting the study helped clarify who does what and at what cost.
“It was a good exercise, a good process and I think an amicable and good resolution for the taxpayer in both cases,” Turner said.