Blandford freezes cost-of-living increases

BLANDFORD – The Board of Selectmen announced this week that they are rolling back plans for cost-of-living increases to town employees, due to the “overwhelming” assessment to the town in the FY16 Gateway Regional School District budget. The salary increases, a proposed 2.5 percent, would have started on the first payroll of the new fiscal year, beginning July 1.
Select Board Clerk Andy Montanaro, who also serves on the Finance Committee, explained that the Gateway assessment to Blandford this year is $218,000 more than last year.
“That’s a 14.7 percent increase,” Montanaro said. “We cannot afford that. It’s crushing.“
He said the employee pay raises were due to be approved, but, “it’s our fiduciary responsibility to freeze them for the time being.”
Montanaro said that since the Gateway budget was voted down by a majority of towns, the school must present a revised budget with new assessments. The School Committee recently voted on a 15-day extension until July 28 to submit a new budget, with the hopes that news of the $630,000 of promised mitigation funds to offset Worthington’s withdrawal would be revealed by then. There will be a special meeting on July 22 at 7:30 p.m. in the Gateway auditorium to vote on a new budget.
Meanwhile, the school district petitioned the Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education to operate on a 1/12th budget. DESE approved that request based on the original FY16 budget, which has created the shortfall and forced the town to react, according to the announcement.
“If the school budget assessment is lower and we can raise the funds, we plan to unfreeze the salary increases back to the beginning of the fiscal year,” Montanaro said.
He said that even with the mitigation funds, the budget that had been originally presented is still too high.
“That by itself still requires some additional cutting or an override. If we’re going to see increases of this magnitude, it’s just not sustainable. We can’t do it,” he said.
Select Board Chairman Adam Dolby agreed.
“The challenge for us very much is that we realize the status quo is not working. The vast majority of our fiscal budget is going to the school, which only benefits 15 percent of the residents in the town,” Dolby said. “We don’t have enough money to fill potholes.”
“Further cuts will be necessary and all options are on the table. We’re also taking the necessary steps to investigate alternative options for educating the kids in Blandford in a manner that is actually affordable and sustainable – clearly what is currently happening isn’t working and is being conducted in a non-collaborative manner,” Dolby said. “The school budget seems to be constructed without any regard as to what the member towns can afford.”
Dolby said the selectmen have talked about other options, including joining another school district, collaborating with other school districts, and hiring a consultant.
“I don’t know how viable these options are,” he said.
“I find it very frustrating that they (Gateway School Committee) have never come to the town and asked, `What can you afford?’“
He said the budget they put out this year had a 9 percent increase counting the mitigation funds, and a 14 percent increase without.
“How can they put that budget before the town and think it’s fair and equitable?” Dolby asked.
“What I would prefer is for Gateway to restructure itself, so that six towns can manage the load. That is my clear preference,” Montanaro said. “Find a way for us to provide the education we would like for our children at a price we can afford.”

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