‘A year of unknowns’ debated at meeting

HUNTINGTON – Representatives from five of the six remaining Gateway towns, along with Gateway Superintendent Dr. David Hopson, gathered on Saturday at Stanton Hall in Huntington for a Gateway Towns Advisory Committee (GTAC) meeting.
The school budget so far has passed two Town Meetings (Middlefield and Montgomery), and was voted down in Russell. Blandford voted for a school budget amount that was below their assessment, and therefore will not pass unless the mitigation money for Worthington’s withdrawal comes from the state. Huntington’s annual town meeting is Monday evening, and Chester meets on June 13. If Huntington does not pass the budget, it will be defeated.
GTAC co-moderator and Huntington’s Finance Committee member Darlene McVeigh said that because Huntington residents did not pass the override in the town election, Huntington would also have to vote something less than their assessment.
“We don’t have free cash reserves to dip into,” McVeigh said.
“Mitigation will hopefully be part of this year’s state fiscal budget,” Hopson said. “As I understand it, it will be part of a supplemental budget. Typically, supplemental budgets are an easier sell than putting it in the regular budget.”
Hopson said if the school budget is rejected, the school will go on a month-to-month budget which the state commissioner decides on.
“A couple of years ago, the commissioner chose the last budget voted on by the School Committee, which is $400,000 less than the current budget (for seven towns),” Hopson said. “Hopefully at some point, we’ll know if we’ll get the injunction against Worthington leaving. Again, this is a year of unknowns.”
“In the event that the Huntington vote on the school budget fails, what are the school committee’s plans to come up with a new budget?” Tony van Werkhooven of Blandford asked Hopson.
“As you all know, the School Committee can come back with the same budget, an increased budget, or a decreased budget,” said Hopson.
Going around the table for a report from the towns, Anne-Marie Buikus of Montgomery said, “Montgomery passed the budget, but then again our assessment was only over by $11,000.”
Buikus said the town also passed two resolutions from GTAC requesting the reimbursement of unfunded mandates from the state, and the other asking the School Committee to explore all options to protect the financial and educational sustainability of the district. Huntington will also put these resolutions before voters on Monday.
“I was disappointed at our meeting, because they did not pass the resolutions,” Ruth Kennedy of Russell said.
“It was the Select Board that was reluctant to bring them forward,” said Derrick Mason, a member of the Russell Finance Committee as well as GTAC. “That being said, we’re not giving up on this.”
“I spoke up at our Town Meeting, and said we should not pass the budget because there are too many questions,” Pandora Hague of Russell said. “I think all of the towns should not have passed the budget until we get the mitigation funding. I’m hoping the budget does not pass because of that – we need to stand firm.”
“We did just very recently ink the contract for the school building rental in Russell (with the Westfield School District, which will house students from Juniper Park Elementary School), which will help us out to the tune of a quarter million dollars,” Mason said. “On the downside, we have just incurred a debt for a quarter million for a new fire truck. So it’s a wash.”
Joe Kearns of Middlefield said their annual Town Meeting, which passed the budget, was the second week of May.
“We had a good turnout of 50-60 people. Our quorum is 12,” he said. Middlefield has 476 residents.
Andy Montanaro of Blandford said the annual Town Meeting was on May 4.
“We voted for the school budget at an amount over that which was voted by the Finance Committee, but under the School Committee amount,” he said. “That will still put us over our levy limit, so we have some issues there.”
“The Finance Committee and town officials felt that the rug had been pulled out from under them by members of the School Committee and the Superintendent,” Van Werkhooven said. “We thought we had an understanding. I found it rather frustrating to find out, to be told at the Town Meeting that the School Committee members were asking for an amount over the Finance Committee’s.”
“I’ll just agree to disagree,” Hopson responded.
“I found the recent ‘Superintendent’s Corner’ (Hopson’s column published in The Westfield News on May 19) extremely contentious,” Van Werkhooven said. “There are significant issues facing the school district. At meetings here, or at the Finance Committee in Blandford, the focus was on finding options. I think the School Committee needs to let the town know that they are actively looking at what they can do to maintain the district.”
“In my world, if you’re the captain of the ship, you’re responsible for whatever happened. And you don’t use the law of unintended consequences to blame it on,” he said, referring to a statement in the column.
“My point in the article was that it’s going to take parents, teachers, everybody, not just town finance people to get involved,” Hopson said.
“We’re looking at more than the school budget,” Van Werkhooven said. “We’re looking at the needs of the town. That’s a very important issue. We have people on the School Committee rightfully focused on education. We’ve typically passed it. To suggest that we don’t care about it is a very fallacious statement.”
“I have to agree,” McVeigh said. “Some of the language here is divisive and inflammatory. GTAC is another volunteer responsibility that many of us have taken on. If the school felt that it was important for parents to come, send out a letter. Gateway needs the towns, the towns need Gateway. They also need GTAC.”
“At the last School Committee meeting when a student got up and said nothing gets done, it’s because the chair does not put enough items on its agenda,” McVeigh said. “I was very disappointed in the tone of your letter. It got a lot of us thinking, what is the future of GTAC. Yes, we may be small, but I think we’ve made a hell of a lot of good progress.”
“I think the appearance of discord is a good thing because the media thrives on that, and brings attention to what we are trying to do,” Mason said. “I would agree with Dr. Hopson that it’s good to point out differences of opinion, but we do need to bring more people to the table. GTAC really needs to define itself, and provide a liaison to the School Committee.”
“The ‘Superintendent’s Corner’ should be about what’s going on in the school,” Kennedy said.
I’ll write whatever I think is appropriate,” Hopson said.

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