WOOD RIVER JCT. — Meeting remotely on May 12, members of the Chariho School Committee discussed ways in which a budget referendum could take place during the COVID-19 pandemic. The referendum was scheduled for April 14, but was postponed due to coronavirus restrictions.
Recent posts on social media have suggested that the School Committee is trying to circumvent the voting process, however, committee chairman Ryan Callahan said members are determined to hold a vote.
“The School Committee wants the voters to vote on this,” he said. “That’s what we want. We want the voters to weigh in on the budget that we’ve put before them. We have no intention of trying to circumvent that or deviate from that. That is our plan.”
The proposed fiscal year 2020-21 Chariho budget is $53.5 million, a 1.95% increase over the current spending plan. The contributions of the towns would be 0.06% less for Charlestown, an increase of 1.38% for Richmond and a 3.9% increase for Hopkinton.
The day after the School Committee meeting, at a special Hopkinton Town Council meeting to discuss the town’s budget, council member Sylvia Thompson and council Vice President Scott Bill Hirst said they were concerned that residents would not have an opportunity to vote on the Chariho budget. Hirst said he would draft a letter to Gov. Gina Raimondo expressing his concerns.
“I’m concerned we’re not having a vote on the referendum and I agree that it’s disenfranchising people,” he said. …”The Chariho School Committee knew there was a problem in April of this year. Our [budget vote] meeting is in June. That’s like, three months later. So the big question is, where’s the Chariho School Committee been?”
“In lockdown,” councilor Barbara Capalbo interjected. “Scott, that was not even possible in March or April. For heaven’s sake they weren’t allowing anyone to go anywhere in New England and they certainly wouldn’t have allowed an election.”
Thompson said she worried that a request had been made to the governor asking her to allow the school district to circumvent the referendum.
“My concern is whether or not any information has gone to the governor to ask her to circumvent that and just allow the budget to exist and there’s no vote,” she said. “So I’m concerned about that. So the bottom line is, if we can get a consensus that we agree that it’s a fundamental right, it’s in the Constitution, the right to vote. You can’t just decide that you don’t have an election on the Chariho budget.”
Asked about the disenfranchisement concerns, Callahan pointed to a document sent to the governor’s office by Chariho attorney Jon Anderson which he said might have led people to believe that the district did not want a budget vote.
“I think what is confusing people is that there are draft proposals for the governor to consider that would make an executive order allowing towns to vote on their own budgets by town councils voting them in, and that includes their school budgets.”
That procedure, Callahan explained, would not be applicable to regional school districts, so there is a second proposal, drafted by Chariho attorney Jon Anderson, that would allow regional school districts to have their school committees vote on their budgets. That proposal, Callahan said, had not been approved by the School Committee.
“At the last public meeting, we were shown a copy of that draft,” Callahan said. “The School Committee did not endorse that draft, the School Committee did not vote on that draft. It was an informational sharing, that some regional districts if they are looking at a draft … the same way the [Rhode Island] League of Cities and Towns are looking for the other towns. That’s not Chariho’s position. The School Committee didn’t endorse it. We are just simply being made aware of it by our attorney, which I really appreciated.”
The Hopkinton council will continue its discussion of the Chariho budget issue at its next meeting on Monday. Council President Frank Landolfi said there was a prevailing concern that the proposals sent to the governor could result in residents not having an opportunity to vote on the schools budget.
“I think that’s what makes people nervous, when some of those ideas are floated around and they’re in uncharted territory and, perhaps, illegal,” he said.
Chariho Interim Superintendent Jane Daly reiterated the district’s commitment to hold a budget vote, but she said she was still waiting for guidance from the state on how to do that.
“We want the voters to vote on our budget,” she said. "There's still uncertainty at the state level as to how that would happen, but we are looking to the towns as to how we'll be able to hold that budget referendum."