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Emotions run high over plan for school

Regionalization talks fuel debate Phelan accused of defying public

By Jennette Barnes
Globe Correspondent / December 15, 2011
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Holbrook’s school-regionalization debate took an emotional turn last week, as School Committee members accused the town administrator of defying the wishes of Town Meeting, while selectmen came to his defense.

Residents trying to hear the exchange spilled out into the hallway outside the selectmen’s meeting room last Thursday as Town Administrator William Phelan was taken to task for discussing regionalization with Abington’s town manager on the heels of a vote against the concept by Holbrook Town Meeting members.

“I think that’s a slap in the face to the people of this town,’’ said Ann Poppenga, a member of the School Committee. Further, she said, the town administrator should not make official overtures on school matters without consulting the School Committee.

School Committee member John Flanagan said Phelan displayed a “level of insensitivity’’ toward Town Meeting.

Residents have expressed concern that disagreement among town and school officials, or the appearance of disagreement, could hurt the quest to get state funding for a new high school.

Holbrook has explored school regionalization several times since the 1980s, lured partly by the idea that with a larger student body, a regional school might be able to offer more courses and activities. The town’s junior-senior high school has 472 students in grades 7 through 12 this year, according to state records.

Selectmen and Phelan have continued to discuss regionalization in the face of a lukewarm response from neighboring communities. Last year, a joint committee of Holbrook and Abington residents rejected regionalization, saying start-up costs would be too high. Subsequently, Holbrook selectmen and the School Committee voted to support a K-12 complex.

But this year, the selectmen’s focus again turned toward regionalization, as the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which controls state funding for school construction, asked the town to do more research before it pursued a new high school.

Following talks with Avon, both communities placed an article on their fall Town Meeting warrants calling for the creation of a regionalization planning committee. It was turned down in both communities.

Abington Town Manager John D’Agostino acknowledged meeting with Phelan to discuss a joint application for a state grant to explore regionalization. While the towns would need to clear several hurdles, such as the differences in health insurance benefits and pay scales for teachers, D’Agostino said, regionalization is worth exploring.

“From my perspective, we would not be doing a service to the people of Abington if we did not aggressively study and pursue’’ learning about the benefits and costs of regionalization.

D’Agostino said regionalization would work only if it represented a “win-win’’ for both towns, with financial incentives from the state. He said a decision of such magnitude should be decided by a townwide election, not solely a Town Meeting vote.

Regarding Phelan’s decision to speak with D’Agostino, two Holbrook selectmen said Phelan had acted properly, and unhappy residents have misjudged him.

“If there’s anyone you’re mistaken about, it’s your town administrator,’’ Selectman Richard McGaughey said at last week’s meeting. He recalled that when Phelan, a former mayor of Quincy, started as town administrator, he told selectmen that only one thing could make a name for Holbrook - great schools. Phelan is a strong supporter of the schools, McGaughey said, “more than anyone I’ve seen.’’

The Board of Selectmen’s chairman, Timothy Gordon, said he has “100 percent full confidence’’ in Phelan, and said Phelan was simply following the directives of the state’s School Building Authority.

The agency offers extra reimbursement for buildings in newly regionalized school systems, based on the economies of scale in construction and operation provided by shared facilities.

People on both sides of the issue want to build a new school, Gordon said, and to do that, the town needs to comply with the state’s requests to investigate regionalization, regardless of whether the town ever goes through with it.

Phelan agreed. “I think that passions are high,’’ he said. “That’s a good sign. . . . That’s all positive, but you can’t just ignore requests that the MSBA makes.’’

But some in the audience said Town Meeting had spoken. On Nov. 29, Holbrook’s Town Meeting members took two key school-related votes: one rejecting the formation of a committee to plan for regionalization, and the other approving a nonbinding referendum to build a new complex for local students in kindergarten through Grade 12. Building the complex would not preclude a subsequent decision to regionalize, but Town Meeting members said Holbrook must focus on the building first.

Some residents have suggested a new building might actually attract a partner for regionalization, as Holbrook has had trouble finding a town willing to blend school districts.

Gordon said he has no reason to think the votes at Town Meeting would excuse Holbrook from fulfilling the MSBA requests detailed in a May 11 letter to the superintendent of schools.

The letter said a still-forthcoming study by the Abrahams Group, retained by Holbrook, is a “critical step’’ in the regionalization process, and that because the results of the study could affect a building project, the study must be finished, accepted by the town, and submitted to the building authority and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education before Holbrook can proceed.

Asked about the report, Phelan said the Abrahams Group has submitted a draft that will be finalized shortly, after the consultant meets with the town’s Permanent School Building Committee to hear its members’ comments.

Phelan said part of the reason he has communicated with Abington is because a Jan. 17 deadline looms to apply for a state grant.

Regional school districts south of Boston include Bridgewater-Raynham, Freetown-Lakeville, Old Rochester (Marion, Mattapoisett, and Rochester), Silver Lake (Halifax, Kingston, and Plympton), Whitman-Hanson, and vocational and agricultural high schools.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at

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