Pathfinder budget dominates Belchertown TM discussion

Belchertown Town Hall 04-10-2023

Belchertown Town Hall 04-10-2023

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 05-14-2024 4:47 PM

BELCHERTOWN — Residents formalized the position of town manager in town bylaws, adopted a zoning bylaw for stand-alone battery storage systems and endorsed a roughly $61.6 million budget for fiscal year 2025 at Monday’s Town Meeting — though some residents questioned why the town is sending additional money to the regional vocational school while having to cut funding to its own schools.

In the Belchertown High School auditorium, 164 residents sped through approval of the 40-article warrant in just two hours without much discussion.

The $61.6 million budget next fiscal year is about $1.3 million, or 2.18%, more than the current year. Of that total, the schools will receive about $33.2 million, which is short of the $34.4 million needed for level services.

The one exception to an otherwise quick meeting was approval of Belchertown’s share of the Pathfinder Regional School District budget, where citizens and students questioned a decision to send the regional vocational district $1.59 million while cutting the town’s school budget by $1.4 million, resulting in 10 layoffs.

“While I do agree that Pathfinder is a great investment for the town, it’s incredibly inequitable that the school that we’re in right now is getting cut meanwhile a school in a different town is getting an increase,” Belchertown High School senior Nora Dyer-Murphy said. “I want Pathfinder to succeed, but I also want my school to succeed, and on equal merit.”

Pathfinder offers vocational curriculums for students in nine towns, including Belchertown, Granby and Ware. Currently Belchertown has 115 students enrolled in the district, equating to an allocation of nearly $1.6 million next fiscal year. Pathfinder’s total budget increased 4.78%, with a 2.8% jump in town allocations, according to Pathfinder’s superintendent Eric Duda.

The Finance Committee spurred discussion around the allocated amount after member Michael McMorrow announced the committee opposed the article for Pathfinder by a 3-1 vote. Finance Committee Chair Laurie Shea explained that the committee wanted to bring awareness of inequity created for local school districts when Pathfinder fails to consider financial constraints of the towns in budgeting.

“We do find great value in having the regional schools such as Pathfinder. That said all of the regions, including Belchertown, are suffering severe cuts to funding, unable to increase services beyond level, in fact having to decrease them in some areas,” Shea said.

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Shea suggested that Pathfinder reach out to towns earlier in the budgeting process to ensure students in all nine towns receive the same investment in their education. Belchertown, for instance, raised its athletic fees next year to balance the budget, while Pathfinder students pay significantly less for athletics. Finance Committee Member Katie Longley said her two boys will pay $700 each to play one sport next year.

“What can we possibly do to help everyone have an education to the best opportunity that they can, regardless of whether it’s someone who’s academically inclined and wants to go to an Ivy League, somebody who wants to go to a vocational school, someone who wants to go trade school like Pathfinder, anything like that so everyone is on a level playing field,” she said.

Select Board member Ron Aponte highlighted the benefits Belchertown gains from its partnership with Pathfinder. Students in the carpentry, plumbing and electrical vocational programs are contributing work to the Belchertown Fire Department’s living quarters, saving the town $1.5 million in construction costs.

“You’re justifying Pathfinder as saving the town $1 million but it’s still cutting school budget and it’s not saving the schools anything,” Ori Sussman said.

Shea added that she agrees with Aponte and doesn’t want to see the article voted down, rather just bring awareness to the issue.

If Belchertown residents voted down the budget, then five of the other nine towns also would need to vote down the budget before it goes back to the regional district’s school committee for reconsideration. If not, the town is required to pay the allocation regardless of the vote.

After lengthy discussion, the budget passed.

Town Manager comes full circle

Last year at Town Meeting, residents approved a title change of the town administrator to town manager, giving the position more power over day-to-day decisions and contract negotiations without involving the Select Board. While the board will still have final say over a majority of government activities, the town manager can sign contracts and hire employees without waiting for board approval.

Voters this year approved two articles related to the position, one of which replaced town administrator with town manager in town bylaws and another that hands the powers of the former Personal Board to the town manager.

Amending, adding bylaws

Many other large items on the warrant passed without discussion or questions from Town Meeting.

Two of the zoning bylaw changes eased restrictions on accessory dwelling units, or apartments added to a home, in several residential districts. Planning Board Vice Chair Daniel Beaudette said the changes will help expand Belchertown’s affordable housing offerings without disrupting too much existing infrastructure.

“What we have found throughout the state is that housing prices are very high, and people have a hard time finding places to live,” Town Planner Doug Albertson said.

The remaining zoning bylaw amendment pivots from residential to commercial properties by allowing contractor yards on properties of at least 5 acres. Beaudette explained that small contracting and construction businesses have taken their companies out of town because they don’t have a place to store equipment. This new amendment invites businesses in while protecting nearby residential areas.

The largest zoning bylaw on the warrant adopted a site plan review and permitting process for independent battery storage systems used to store energy generated from solar and wind systems. The bylaw keeps regulations to small battery systems that accompany residential solar systems to a minimum, while also allowing the town’s Fire Department to control design of larger systems for big solar arrays or substations.

With the Town Meeting completed, town elections will take place on Monday to fill two Select Board seats, two School Committee seats and a Planning Board seat among other positions. None of the positions are contested. Voting will begin at 8 a.m. in the Belchertown High School gymnasium.

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