September 23, 2019

Dighton- Rehoboth Goes Back to School

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Students in the Dighton-Rehoboth Regional School District go back to school on Thursday, Sept. 5. Many students and parents look forward to this time of year. It’s a time for new teachers, new subjects, new friends, sometimes a new school, and many new things to learn. “Every school year is different but it’s always an exciting time to anticipate the first day of school,” Superintendent Dr. Anthony Azar said.

Despite the difficulties surrounding the Fiscal Year 2020 budget (which is still in limbo pending a vote at the fall town meeting), Superintendent Azar says the district is in good shape. “Despite the angst created by the budget, we are in good shape to start the new year,” Azar said. All programs and teaching staff are in place, although this summer it looked like that might not be the case because of the budget problems. Any fees that were needed upfront for sports were covered by user fees. “We were able to start all our high school programs on time without a bump to the schedules,” Azar said.

The Budget
As of July 1, 2019, the district has been operating under a 1/12th budget set by the Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) because the Fiscal Year 2020 budget was not finalized. There was a gap of approximately $559,000 between the school committee’s budget and the Rehoboth Finance Committee’s budget.  The school district had laid off 24 teachers in June to make up for the gap and then restored the positions. Instead, sports and extracurricular activities were suspended and four administrative positions - assistant superintendent, dean of athletics & activities, IT director and the facilities manager - were cut.

At a July 16 Special Town Meeting, which saw record attendance, voters opted to put a Proposition 2 ½ override question on the ballot to fully fund the school district’s requested budget.  Rehoboth’s Board of Selectmen met with Azar and the school committee and worked out a compromise for the budget. “Through the foresight of all of us working together, the selectmen identified reductions of about $330,000 to their budget and we identified approximately $240,000 of reductions to our school district, thereby making up the gap,” Azar said.

Additional state aid also became available after the Governor released the state budget, which was not included previously.  Because of the budget compromise, and the fact that the Commissioner of Education agreed to increase the school district’s 1/12th allocation, school officials were able to bring back the sports and activities and are in the process of bringing back the administrators.

Also, the special election for a Proposition 2 ½ override to fund the budget gap will probably not be needed. The town will still have to approve the revised budget at the fall special town meeting on Monday, November 4. If it is not approved, the district will likely continue with the 1/12 budget through November, says Azar. “On December 1st, the Commissioner will set our budget for the remainder of the school year and he can set it at any amount he wants,” Azar said.

Azar believes the current budget will be maintained for the remainder of the year, but that is not certain. One of the reasons that Rehoboth continues to have trouble finalizing the school budget, says Azar, is the way that the assessments for the two towns are calculated per the regional agreement. The regional agreement between Rehoboth and Dighton is outdated and Azar says it needs to be worked on. (An update to the agreement was attempted a few years ago, but was unsuccessful.)  “The assessment piece is wherein the problem lies between the two towns,” said Azar. “How do we assess properly and fairly?”

School Liaison Appointed to Improve Communication
The town and school district have appointed a new liaison between the schools and the towns to help repair the divisiveness that the budget issue has created and to improve communication going forward. “Selectman Mike Costello will be charged with bridging the informational gap between the school committee and the board of selectmen,” Azar said. “Going into the FY 2021 budget season we will be in a very good place to make sure both towns have an understanding that before we go into town meeting that we’re all on the same page and we all have an understanding of the needs of the towns and school district,” Azar said.

New Administrators
The new school year usually brings a change in administrators. This year there are only a few new people:

The district has a new Business Administrator. Paul Kitchen replaced Catherine Antonellis, who has retired after several years at D-R. Kitchen served as business administrator in the Fairhaven School District for 11 years and most recently worked in the Old Rochester Regional District. Kitchen, who started on August 19, is also an attorney and has also worked for the Massachusetts District Attorney’s Office. “He’s already hit the ground running,” Azar said.

Kristin Donahue, Special Educator Director, started in January. She previously served in the Fall River District.

One of the assistant principals at D-R High School, Bruce Tench, has left and the district is working on filling the position.

Enrollment
Enrollment has been up and down. It is increasing at the elementary level, especially in Dighton, and in the middle schools as children move up through the grade levels. High school enrollment has decreased as some students choose to attend private schools, Bristol County Agricultural High or Bristol Plymouth Vocational High.  “D-R Regional High School is definitely a diamond in the rough and folks should take a second look,” Azar said.

School Buildings
There’s been a considerable amount of work done on the district buildings. The most recent project is the high school roof, which was completed in the spring. “All the other buildings are in very good shape,” Azar said.  The district has been working all summer to get the buildings ready for students.  “The custodians and the secretaries, the unsung heroes, working to get the schools ready for the first day of school is a remarkable feat,” Azar said. The buildings have new HVAC systems. The solar arrays have been up and running for a few years. “This will be the first year that all of our cost reductions from the solar arrays will be realized,” Azar said.

The district is also developing SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Credits) that allows the school department to sell energy produced by the solar arrays. It is an opportunity to reduce the assessment to the towns, says Azar. “This year it brought in approximately $424,000 to reduce costs. It is a reoccurring revenue stream going forward,” Azar said.

Modular classrooms were installed at Dighton Elementary last February. The modulars are expected to be in place for three to five years.

The school department is in the process of creating a district-wide building committee to determine future needs for all five buildings and campuses.

The Fall Special Town Meeting will be held at D-R High School at 7 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 4.

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