Gateway budget increases discussed

Kathy Gawle (L) and Christy Reynolds (Photo by Amy Porter)

HUNTINGTON – Before the regular meeting of the Gateway District School Committee last night, Kathy Gawle, parent of senior Cody Gawle, was waiting to discuss the student parking fees that she had asked be put on the agenda at the last meeting.
“We’re going to suggest that they adjust the parking fees,” Gawle said.  Gateway charges $264 per year for students to park. By comparison, Westfield High School charges $20 per year, Northampton $30 per year, and Belchertown, the most expensive next to Gateway, $80 per year.
Other regional schools in the area, including Frontier Regional and Hampshire Regional, do not charge students parking fees, nor do Hopkins Academy in Hadley, Smith Academy in Hatfield, Smith Vocational in Northampton, or Westfield Vocational.
Christy Reynolds, whose son Keegan Reynolds-Cornell, a senior, also drives to school, said, “We feel that the students and the parents shouldn’t be responsible to make up for the budget shortfall. They  have to manage their budget to cover expenses.”
At the meeting, the issue was addressed under old business. Kathy Gawle told the committee, “The reason we’re here obviously is that you saw the list. The parking fee compared to most other schools is outrageous.”
“It’s a lot of money – a $10,000 line item. The students go to the school, they make Gateway pretty proud. To charge them a fee to come to school is pretty outrageous to me,” Gawle added.
Hopson responded, “It’s higher than the average fee across the Commonwealth. But the parking fee is only one of the fees we charge. Put all the fees together, they’re a $160,000 line item.”
Hopson later said the average fee in the State of MA for student parking is $114. About a third of the schools across the Commonwealth charge fees.
Worthington School Committee member Gretchen Eliason, who is chairperson of the Finance Committee, said, “We need to balance the distance the students have to drive with recouping the cost of their seat on the bus, even if they don’t ride it.”
According to an informational handout, Gateway provides a seat on a school bus for every student who lives more than 1.5 miles from their school — whether or not they routinely use the bus. This costs about $900 per student. As a regional district, Gateway is not allowed to charge a fee for busing because the state reimburses a percentage of the transportation costs. Reimbursement for FY12 is expected to be 58 percent, the 2nd lowest reimbursement rate in the past 15 years. Parking fees, when implemented ten years ago, were seen as a way to offset the cost of transportation, by having students who do not use their “seat” on the bus pay a portion of their cost.
“There is a substantial rebate for students who are not tardy,” said Eliason.
When parking fees were first initiated, the students who drove to school were likely to be late to their first class. As an incentive, students who purchase a parking sticker for the full year and are not late to school during that time will receive a 5o percent refund ($132). Likewise, students who purchase a sticker for first semester ($132) and are not late during that time, are only required to pay 50 percent of the second semester fee ($66), and are refunded the full amount if they are not late during the second semester. Monthly and daily fees are not refunded.
Senior Cody Gawle said, “I drive to school every day. We have one tardy before we lose that reimbursement. What about inclement weather?”
Worthington School Committee member Sue Levreault answered, “It’s a life lesson. Inclement weather is not necessarily an excuse for being tardy.”
Business and Finance Administrator Stephanie Fisk said this year 16 students bought a semester or full-year pass. Wednesday, four refunds for non-tardy fees were given.
Six students from time-to-time purchase the monthly pass. 16-20 students buy the daily pass. Monthly and daily passes are not eligible for non-tardy refunds. There are however excused tardies for being late to school for inclement weather – if buses are late to school.
“I’m being nickeled and dimed to death here,” said Gawles.
Parent Christy Reynolds added, “It’s a necessity in my family. I think you’re being unrealistic. If you lower the fee by half, it would be a more realistic amount. This is an exorbitant amount of money that you’re asking a very small percentage of kids to pay. Many kids can’t afford the parking fees. That’s all we’re asking, a more reasonable amount of money.”
Another suggestion was to offer non-tardy rebates for monthly fees, as well as semester or yearlong passes. The School Committee will vote on the student parking fees at the next meeting.
The Gateway budget for the 2012-13 school year that was distributed at the last meeting and posted on the Gateway Regional website (www.grsd.org) was then discussed.
Hopson said the budget is up .6 percent.  He also said he was very happy to have town officials come early in the budget process this year.
Earlier, during the public input portion of the meeting, Russell Select Board member Pandora Hague said, “We’ve all been talking about the budget and what it means to the town, because the school is such a big part of the budget. We’re here to tell you that we can’t afford any more.  When you’re going through your budget, you need to be very careful.”
Dave Burrage, representing the town of Montgomery said, “The Superintendent says the budget is only increasing .6 percent, but it’s increasing twice that, with the stabilization fund.”
Hopson said he considers that fund a separate item from the budget, but if included, the increase is in fact doubled.
Burrage said, “The towns don’t have any more money, any more than last year. We struggled last year. We caution the school committee not to raise the assessments to the towns.”
Hopson asked, “Are you looking for a zero percent increase to the budget?” adding that the assessment to the towns is also influenced by state reimbursement. Burrage said yes.
Ron Damon, Huntington School Committee member asked, “What was the estimated cost of the roof project (for the Middle School) that we haven’t started talking about yet?”
Hopson said, “$250,000 five years ago. We don’t have the money to replace the roof, or the boilers or the well.”
“We are asking for some funding to go into a stabilization fund, rather than a one-time hit. I don’t know, the towns may prefer a one-time hit because then they could debt exclude it, instead of raising taxes,” Hopson added.
“Somewhere along the line, we’re going to have to find a way to sell some of the anticipated costs to put into the stabilization fund. If everything hits at once, we’ll be in trouble,” said Ron Damon.
Earlier in the meeting Gretchen Eliason said the Finance Committee talked about developing a fact sheet on the stabilization fund for the towns.
Burrage asked if the school committee, under the present law, is restricted in the use of the stabilization fund.
Hopson answered that the question came up in the Finance Committee, and they will be consulting a lawyer.
Chester School Committee member Shirley Winer asked about the increase in the maintenance costs in the budget. Stephanie Fisk said it was due to the increase in oil prices. $3.10 per gallon is in the budget for oil, but they are hoping to get it locked in at the $2.85 range.
Fisk added, “We were a little early in coming out with the budget, ” explaining that they cannot yet account for “increases in health insurance, charter students, etc.”
After the meeting, Wendy Long, Gateway District Grant Writer said that in 2003 the state funded 60 percent of the Gateway budget, and the towns 40 percent. Now that number is reversed.
School Committee Moderator Beth Brett of Chester added, “We still want to provide a quality education for our children.”
Long said other factors impacting the budget process include declining enrollment. “Fewer households are raising school-aged children than ever before,” she said.
There will be a budget hearing on Wednesday, March 7, at 7:30 p.m. in the Gateway Auditorium. The meeting is open to the public.

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