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Pentucket schools in turmoil

Three towns to decide how to fund operations

The Pentucket Regional School Committee's demand for its superintendent's resignation last week was just the latest setback for a district that has been mired in discord this school year.

The vote came after third-year Superintendent John MacLean informed the board that he would not seek to renew his contract beyond 2006. He declined to comment on the board's request for his resignation.

It also came at a meeting at which he told committee members that the budget for the current school year, which they had believed was balanced, was actually missing that mark by $500,000 to $750,000.

This was the final straw for some of those dissatisfied with the superintendent's performance.

''The trust factor is very low," Groveland Finance Committee chairman Thomas Minichiello told the committee. ''Every decision, every number is doubted that comes from that office, and it will continue as it goes on."

As a result, the schools will go into Town Meeting season with either a lame duck superintendent or none, as the School Committee seeks to rewrite a regional agreement that many feel is not working in the students' best interest.

On the annual Town Meeting warrants in Groveland and West Newbury on April 25 and Merrimac on May 2 are articles that would change the regional agreement between the three towns that make up the district. The agreement is a contract that establishes how the district is governed and funded.

Pentucket isn't the only three-town regional school committee with concerns about its regional agreement.

In the Triton Regional School District, a closer look at the regional agreement began last year after a feud among the member communities, Newbury, Rowley and Salisbury, and may result in changes in the towns' assessments. Those involved said the issue is close to a peaceful resolution.

Pentucket may be another story. The School Committee, which has representatives from all three towns, is seeking to make five changes to its regional agreement.

The most significant would change the requirement that any budget increase must be proportionately funded by all three towns. Last year, this led to a situation in which Groveland and West Newbury approved Proposition 2½ overrides, but could not enact them because Merrimac voters rejected their override.

This year, another Proposition 2½ override is under consideration in Merrimac -- a town that has not supported overrides in recent history -- to fund $484,500 in school operations.

The other towns in the district anticipate being able to fund the district's $1.47 million increase without an override because of the overrides passed last year.

The Town Meeting articles in each of the three towns seek to adopt the state model for regional districts, which would require only two towns to approve spending increases, rather than all three. Critics charge that the current arrangement drags down education in the region.

''My opinion is that this doesn't work at all," said Peter Cronin, School Committee member from West Newbury. ''When one town decides it can't fund what the schools are asking for, that town gets to determine what the district gets."

Some point to the disparity in average incomes among the three towns with Merrimac on the low end and West Newbury on the high. However, School Committee member Thomas Atwood, a West Newbury resident and Merrimac native, said it's also a matter of priorities.

''There are a lot of issues," he said, ''and a lot of excuses being made."

School Committee member Carol Grazio from Groveland doesn't think the agreement needs to be changed.

''It was very carefully thought out, and very carefully worked out," Grazio said. ''I'm a firm believer that if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

There are a number of factors putting a squeeze on regional school districts, including rising fuel costs and recent decreases in state aid.

The debate involves not just the town governments and the school administration, but also the Pentucket Association of Teachers. It sued the district, challenging the legality of the rule that funding increases require approval by all three towns. The case was recently sent to arbitration.

In addition, two parents' groups have joined the fray, the three-town Step Up group and the Merrimac-based Citizens for a Stronger Community.

In nearby Newbury, the Triton Regional School District also has been reviewing its regional agreement. Rowley selectman A.J. Paglia said last year that he no longer believed in Triton's method of billing its member communities.

Triton, like Pentucket, charged each member town the same per-pupil rate. But most regional districts take figures from the state and charge member towns different per-pupil rates based on each community's characteristics, including its wealth and growth.

Paglia figured out that if Triton used the state system as opposed to its own, Rowley would pay less and Newbury would pay more. Rowley subsequently refused to pay the same rate as Newbury, and the district began using the state's method. Since then, the member towns have met to examine its shared contract.

Paglia said Rowley has worked to limit its growth to put less pressure on Triton, and that the state funding system rewards that kind of planning.

''Why should I have to pay for their lack of planning?" Paglia said. ''I don't mean that for Salisbury or Newbury specifically, but I'm saying why should one community have to cover the cost of another community?"

Sandra Halloran, who will take over as Triton's superintendent this summer, said that since Paglia requested that the contract be rewritten, negotiations among the three towns have improved relations. She said the towns are close to coming up with a new agreement.

The third three-town regional school district in the region (excluding the vocational schools) is Masconomet, which appears to be functioning in harmony despite its request for a Proposition 2½ override and a history that has had some rocky moments.

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