Over 130 town residents attended the meeting held to approve funding for the current fiscal year of the Gateway Regional School District (GRSD) budget. Several articles were considered in the two-hour meeting. The end result was that voters approved an amount for their above-minimum contribution to the school budget that was below their assessment, in effect voting it down.
Before the meeting officially opened, Finance Committee member Linda Smith gave a presentation on the town’s financial situation. She said that at the Annual Town Meeting on May 4, the Finance Committee recommended an amount for Gateway “that we felt we could afford.” During that meeting, there was an addition made to the recommendation and passed of approximately $27,000.
“What that did to the town budget was a $26,000 deficit,” Smith said. “An unbalanced budget results in multiple problems for the town.”
Smith said the Finance Committee’s recommendations for this meeting included voting yes on the first article, to rescind the vote taken at the Annual Town Meeting. She said this would in effect take the town back to zero.
The second article to be considered was to raise and appropriate or transfer from available funds a sum of money for the operation of GRSD; and to raise or transfer additional funds to meet the town’s assessment in the budget, contingent upon the approval at a town election for a Proposition 2 ½ override.
Smith explained that the assessment for Blandford was 14.6 percent over the previous year’s, due to the impact of Worthington’s withdrawal from the school district. She said the original recommendation by the Finance Committee at the ANnual Town Meeting was the most they could make under the Proposition 2 ½ levy limit, and was 6 percent higher than the previous year.
“Should you vote for the school amount, the only way to get there is to pass an override,” she said.
Smith asked residents to consider how much they would be taking from the town when they consider how much to send to the school. She then asked town employees in the room to stand, saying that the town was unable to give the employees a 2.5 percent cost of living increase due to the amount voted for the school in May.
Finance Committee member Tony van Werkhooven then recited a list of the needs in town, including a new firehouse, new fire truck, road repairs, new highway excavator and repairs to the town garage.
During a question-and-answer period following the presentation, Gateway Superintendent Dr. David B. Hopson, a Blandford resident, noted that $35,000 in savings from two fewer vocational students than expected this year will make up for the $27,000 in additional funds.
“You’re assuming that we haven’t already earmarked those funds,” Smith said.
“Dr. Hopson makes a good point,” Blandford Selectman Adam Dolby said. “The challenge that we have with the Gateway budget overall is that the town does not exist to serve the Gateway budget. There is no balance between the towns and the schools.”
After the meeting officially opened, the articles were considered.
“The town should not rescind a vote at a Special Town Meeting taken at the Annual Town Meeting,” town resident John Crane said. “It sets a bad precedent.”
“If we don’t rescind this budget, the next article is to implement the new budget,” Finance Committee chair and Selectman Andy Montanaro said. “Then we will have two budgets.”
“Education is an enlightening experience,” recent Gateway graduate Kyle Bessette said, noting that he used to go to elementary school in the building which is now being used for town offices. “We have to come together. We have to compromise.”
A motion was made to move to a paper ballot for the vote to rescind. There was some confusion around the procedure. The first try, the town clerk collected the ballots. This attempt was challenged, and the vote was retaken with residents checking their names off at the registration table. After one half hour, the vote to rescind passed 77 to 47.
Finance Committee member Tony van Werkhooven then moved to amend the second article in the warrant to include the amount of $1,584,148 for Blandford’s above-minimum contribution, and the amount of $116,058 contingent on an override election.
“The first amount we will have available through normal revenue sources, and was the original recommendation by the Finance Committee and presented at the Annual Town Meeting,” Van Werkhooven said.
He said the second amount is what would be needed to fulfill the request in the Gateway treasurer’s July 27 letter to the towns. September 10 was the deadline to act on that letter.
Another motion was made to divide the question. The motion to take up the question in two parts passed.
Hopson then moved to amend the first part to raise and appropriate $1,609,360, an addition of $25,212.
“This is the amount that would not require the town to come back should the town get mitigation funding,” Hopson said.
Smith said she was nervous mentioning the mitigation funding. “We based our budget on actuals,” he said. “What the town can afford. We can’t budget on a fabrication.”
“We’re here tonight voting on this because the state didn’t come back with the mitigation funding,” Hopson said.
He said he didn’t disagree with the committee in terms of the override, and would recommend not voting for an override. He urged residents to vote for the money that would meet the town’s assessment with the mitigation funds.
Blandford resident and School Committee chair Michele Crane said the current Gateway budget being considered was passed by the School Committee in March.
“It was passed because we wanted to send a message to the state,” said Crane. “We wanted to stand as a committee, and not balance the budget on the backs of the kids. The reason we haven’t acted (on a new budget), is that we’re all waiting for mitigation funds.”
“What I heard is that the choice is either or – either the kids or the towns,” Montanaro said. “It’s always that we’re gonna stick with the kids and put the burden on the towns.”
The question was called. The amendment made by Hopson on the amount of $1,609,360 failed. The motion to raise and appropriate the Finance Committee’s recommendation of $1,584,148 passed. The motion to hold an override election for the additional $116,058 to meet the town’s above-minimum contribution in the current budget failed.
“At this point,” Town Counsel Mark Reich said. “You’ve rejected the budget.”