CHESTER – In order for the Gateway Regional School District to pass its budget, four towns must vote in favor of their assessments. Before Chester met for its Annual Town Meeting on Saturday, three towns (Middlefield, Montgomery and Blandford), all of which had decreases in their assessments, had voted for the budget, and two towns which faced high increases (Russell and Huntington) had voted it down.
Chester also faced an increase, but a lower one of approximately $14,000 more than last year. When Article 9 for the above minimum contribution, the only portion of the budget that towns may vote up or down, came up for a vote on Saturday, Finance Committee chair Andrew Myers offered an amendment to lower the assessment from $413,788 to $348,159.
When asked from the floor why the figure was reduced, Selectman Barbara Huntoon said the amount would level fund the Gateway budget, which contained a 1.5% increase. Huntoon also cited declining student enrollment as one reason the selectmen were supportive of the amendment.
Myers said Gateway’s assessment is over 50% of the town’s budget. He said there were three reasons to ask Gateway to come back with another budget, the first being economic trends. He said the region’s population has leveled out, with the percentage of under-20 and 20-to-64 year olds going down, and over-65 year olds going up. Despite these trends, he said, spending levels have gone up.
“With stagnant growth and per capita spending going up, we need to do some things to change that trend,” Myers said. He added that the district school population has also decreased from a high of 1,600 in 1993, to approximately 800 today.
Myers also said although the overall school budget is up 1.5%, the assessments for all the towns increased by 2.5%, but disproportionately for the towns that were increased at a higher rate due to their percentage share of the student population. He noted that Russell was facing almost a $200,000 increase, and Huntington, about $140,000.
“Russell can’t afford that. Our decision is, are we going to join those towns that voted the budget down and said they can’t afford it,” Myers said.
The third reason Myers gave for the Finance Committee’s decision was the process. “We think we should have a seat at the table. Gateway is adding more meetings to include the towns. That is a step in the right direction next year, but it didn’t happen this year,” he said. “Make no mistake, we need good schools, and we need to support those schools,” he added.
Gateway Regional superintendent Dr. David B. Hopson was then recognized from the floor. “The reality is, if you vote this down, Gateway has 30 days to do another budget, which is not a lot of time,” Hopson said. He said in the last ten years, there have been fewer students, but more of them that have qualified for free lunches, and more with special needs; costs which have impacted the budget.
Hopson added that Gateway saved $250,000 this year by serving special needs students in the district. “We’ve also cut staff by 50% and administration by 60% in the last ten years,” he added.
Diane Dunn, School Committee representative from Chester, said her committee is talking about the declining population and declining student enrollment. “We’re not going to attract more students when you vote the budget down,” Dunn said. She said families pay attention to community support of the schools.
Another resident said that Gateway offered more when she was a student. “If you keep cutting the budget, you’ll lose families,” she said, adding that she may consider sending her children out of district or moving out of town for more opportunities.
“I’m a graduate of Gateway, too. I’m not talking about cutting the schools, but partnering with the schools,” said John Baldasaro, chair of the Board of Selectman, who had earlier talked about the lack of input at School Committee meetings regarding the budget.
“I don’t disagree; I certainly think the towns should be a part of the budget process. That’s not what we’re voting on. There are great things happening in that school every day,” said Chester School Committee member Martha Otterbeck.
Dunn said the last time the school budget was voted down, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) got involved and cost the district $30,000. “We need continuity in the budget. The schools are economically run, but this is constant upheaval,” Dunn said.
“I agree with you. We need stability, we need continuity. This town is a business, and 60% of it we don’t know anything about,” Baldasaro said. Hopson then countered that the Gateway line item budget has been posted on the website since the fall, and the district is one of the most transparent in the region.
More discussion followed about the declining numbers of students, and the district’s impact on the town budget. There was also confusion expressed about the vote on the amendment and what it meant.
“Years ago, I was superintendent of Gateway. We had the same discussion then as now. I sense in this room a real energy,” said moderator Richard Holzman. He asked residents to keep an open mind going forward, and not get angry.
Holzman explained that the residents needed first to vote on the amendment and whether to lower the above minimum contribution to the town, and then vote on the article, with or without the amended number. It was also pointed out that amending the above-minimum contribution would amount to a defeat of the budget.
The vote to amend the assessment passed 48 to 26. The article on the above minimum contribution with the amended figure also passed 48 to 26. The Gateway budget will now return to the School Committee, which has the option of voting on a lower budget, a higher budget, or the same budget and then sending it back to the towns for passage.