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The lengthy, multi-board debate over a $120,000 special appropriation to fund a mental health program at Polson Middle School has finally come to an affirmative end. At its regular meeting on June 26, the Board of Selectmen (BOS) ultimately approved the special appropriation for the program, though not without some board members balking at how the request ended up before the board in the first place.
The special appropriation will fund to fund an Effective School Solutions (ESS) contractor for Polson Middle School next year. Introduced to the high school three years ago, ESS is designed to provide intensive clinical programming for students with significant emotional and behavioral problems so they can stay in the public school system.
The high school currently has two ESS contractors and the district wanted to expand the program to Polson. In the budget approved at referendum on May 15, the Board of Education (BOE) elected to hold off on the position for one year as the district works through a configuration change.
Though the position was excluded from the main budget, over the course of two meetings the board ultimately decided to approve funding the position by “requesting from the Town of Madison for the 2018-’19 fiscal year an assignment and/or appropriation of $120,000 for the purpose of funding the ESS program at Polson Middle School.” The condition of the appropriation was that the $120,000 come from unspent funds the board would return at the end of this year from the current budget.
There was no other plan approved to fund the program because typically the BOE does return some money to the town each year; this year proved to be atypical. The BOE had discussed various ways to try to find the $120,000 for the program, but the easiest and cleanest solution came from the town.
At the Board of Finance (BOF) meeting on June 20, that board unanimously approved a $120,000 special appropriation out of fund balance to fund the program in the coming year with board members calling the program a wise investment for the students and the town financially.
The appropriation request then went to the BOS on June 26, where it hit a bit of a snag. Selectman Bruce Wilson said while he understands the merits of the program, he is concerned with the process.
“The BOE was aware of this program and decided not to include it in their budget and has, after the referendum, asked the town for $120,000 to be added to their $58 million budget,” he said. “I feel that is a dangerous precedent for us to set as a town, to show taxpayers a budget and then change it after a public vote.”
Wilson said he wants to be clear: His issue is with the process, not the merits of the program.
“Lest I be labeled anti-education, when I was on the BOE and the ESS program was first introduced to the town, I enthusiastically supported its budgeting in the high school and I still stand by that enthusiastic support,” he said. “This is not a critique of ESS or the services they provide our children, I think that it’s a valuable resource to the town, and the BOE could today implement this program without asking for a special appropriation. They would simply have to go in and find something around 0.2 percent of their operating budget and free it up for this program. They can do that without asking the town for any help.”
The BOE did investigate funding the program out of surplus it might have at the close of the current fiscal year, but with the BOE currently looking at a deficit due to an unanticipated spike in special education costs, it did not further pursue the matter. Wilson said his issue is why the BOE didn’t plan for this program in the coming budget.
“I think ESS is a good program,” he said. “It has been successful at the high school and I am sure it will be successful in the middle school. I question why the BOE didn’t find the money in its budget to do this by any other way, so in effect saying if the town doesn’t give the BOE another $120,000, they are not going to do that program.”
Selectman Jean Ferris agreed with Wilson, but selectmen Scott Murphy and Al Goldberg stood in support of the program, breaking the debate along party lines. Murphy said circumstances changed after the BOE budget was set, causing it to look for other ways to fund the program, and since the BOE and BOF have approved the appropriation request, he thought the BOS should do the same.
“This is for mental health of students at the middle school,” he said. “That is what this funding would be focused on. My understanding was if one student uses this program, it in essence pays for itself. I am in complete support of this money and I think we should be doing whatever we possibly can to support the kids and mental health in schools. I understand your point about process, but with all due respect my understanding was it was cut without the support of the superintendent.”
Board members went back and forth over the rationale of the appropriation and how the town would fund the program. Some BOS members suggested that the BOE was relying on unanticipated state funding to cover the cost of the program, but members of the BOF had previously indicated that while some extra state aid is nice, the town doesn’t need to rely on that aid to fund the program out of town reserves.
Ultimately First Selectman Tom Banisch cast the deciding vote, stepping across party lines.
“I am going to go on record and say that I agree with Bruce and Jean, however, for the sake of passing this I am going to vote for it,” he said.
The $120,000 special appropriation to fund the ESS program was approved by a 3-2 vote with Banisch, Murphy, and Goldberg voting in favor and Wilson and Ferris voting against.
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