South Hadley Town Meeting OK’s budget that lays off 24 school staff; nuisance bylaw tabled

South Hadley Town Hall  04-12-2023

South Hadley Town Hall 04-12-2023

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 05-09-2024 8:09 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Town Meeting voters signed off Wednesday on a $56.4 million budget for fiscal year 2025 that creates a new Human Services Department and lays off 24 staff members in the school system.

In the four-hour meeting, the 84 Town Meeting members at the South Hadley High School auditorium passed 26 of 28 articles and tabled the other two, including a controversial measure that would have amended the town’s nuisance bylaw. All six articles in a special Town Meeting, including one delegating $25,000 to continue the town’s partnership with ValleyBike Share, also passed.

The motion to approve the town budget explained that $50.4 million will be raised through taxation, while the remaining $6 million comes from local receipts, free cash, state aid and enterprise funds.

“This was very much a challenging year as far as budgeting goes. Our increase in state aid is substantially less than it’s been in prior years,” said Thomas Terry, chair of the Appropriations Committee. “That in combination with higher than previous increases in our unclassified accounts, such as health insurance, and retirement, are the real strain on the budget and really require a great deal of work to come up with an operating budget that we use for this upcoming fiscal year.”

School budget

Town Meeting member Linda Young brought attention to the school budget during the meeting, asking the School Committee and interim Superintendent Mark McLaughlin to address the concerns of parents mentioned at the School Committee’s budget hearing about losing paraprofessionals in special education and kindergarten classrooms. In addition to the 24 layoffs, five other staff members have already accepted other jobs to leave the district or retired.

McLaughlin said that the layoffs will not impact students’ education.

“We have done a multi-year study that has revealed that students who need paraeducator’s support for part of the day, let’s say for transition purposes between classes, have been assigned a full-time, one-to-one paraeducator. That is not necessary for the needs,” he said.

Town Meeting Member Nina Nedrebo asked how the salary money for the reduced staff was being used by the district. McLaughlin answered that the resources were reallocated.

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Young commented that she has heard McLaughlin explain this reasoning three times, and has a hard time believing him when the district cut an assistant principal at the high school a decade ago, only to request the position again last fall.

“It is impossible to predict on any given year what the needs of our community will be. We have to be flexible,” McLaughlin said. “We need to add staff when we need them. We need to reduce staff when we don’t need them. The idea of retaining staff because we might need them in two or three years does not make fiscal or financial sense.”

Town Meeting members Jodi Miller and Adam Reid called attention to the 8% raise in the police budget, despite the schools facing layoffs and budget constrictions. Town Administrator Lisa Wong said the salary raises for this year are the final raises in a three-year contract and were an attempt to make the town’s police force more attractive by getting the local police salary up to the median. She also mentioned the various programs and partnerships the South Hadley police undertook, including training for crisis intervention and mental health.

Yet Reid commented that police alone do not keep a community safe.

“There are things that are really important in our town to be addressing things that can keep us safe, even just the quality of our roads, preservation of our green spaces, the quality of our education. These are things that I think I feel as a citizen keep us safe, not increases to the police budget,” Reid said.

Nuisance bylaw

The most contested article of the evening was a proposal to amend the town’s nuisance bylaw to define noise levels and add fines for violations, as well as eliminate lawn maintenance as part of the rules. At the meeting, Town Meeting member Ray Brando proposed an amendment to encourage recycling furnishings and appliances on the curbside.

“Putting furnishing out under the tree belt worked very favorably as a form of recycling. I know when I was downsizing and selling my house, every article I ever put there was taken off within a day and a half, and sometimes I turned my back and there was somebody out there picking up what I put out,” Brando said.

Kevin Taugher questioned the content of the new noise limit, explaining that many sounds are 10 decibels above ambient noise as the bylaw amendment outlines. Without any specific hours, time of day or equipment, Taugher said that any person mowing their lawn or using a leaf blower could easily violate the bylaw.

Wong said that the Select Board only looked to add enforcement mechanisms to the town’s bylaws, similar to the changes in the municipal lien bylaw and enforcement bylaw amendments. Many of the questions brought up by residents involve the content of the bylaw, which was not discussed.

With this in mind, Town Meeting members agreed to table the article and bring it back to Town Meeting once the Bylaw Committee reviewed the content of the legislation more clearly.

Citizen petitions

Two citizens petition articles, one recommending the Planning Board conduct hybrid meetings and another to add residential housing in the A-1 Business District Zone, were also topics of conversation. The zoning amendment was submitted by Himanshu Patel, owner of Liquor Town, who hopes to add several residential units to his property.

The zoning change passed with one amendment: to move the date of the site plan review applications from March 1, 2025 to June 1, 2025. By June, Young said, the Planning Board will have the results and analysis of the Route 202/33 corridor study, which is currently in process. Once the Planning Board brings the recommendations from the study to the Town Meeting in May, then the board can move forward with Patel’s additions, the study recommendations fresh on their mind.

“We are asking for us as a Town Meeting to address the Route 202/33 corridor, which runs from the Granby boarder to the Plain School intersection to the Chicopee border, and to address that whole area once with the recommendations of the planning board rather than trying to do it piecemeal,” Young said.

Patel’s lawyer said the applicants had no qualms with waiting, and the motion passed.

Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@gazettenet.com.