RUSSELL – At Thursday’s Special Town Meeting, voters rejected for a second time an over-minimum contribution of more than $722,000 to the Gateway Regional School District, a figure which included a reduction of $11,000 from the initial FY18 budget.
With Huntington’s majority nay vote on Wednesday, it is now up to Chester residents to either vote for or against the Gateway budget at their meeting on Saturday, August 12 at 1 p.m. The three other Gateway member towns, Blandford, Montgomery and Middlefield, passed the budget at their Annual Town Meetings. However, passage by four towns is needed for the budget to go forward.
Russell’s meeting, originally scheduled for 6:30, was not able to get underway until almost 7:00, until a quorum of 56 residents was reached and then exceeded. At its Annual Town Meeting in May, Russell residents voted to reduce the quorum to 25; however, the state has not yet approved the change.
Moderator Ilityd Fernandez-Sierra opened the meeting, asking for a motion on the over-minimum contribution. Finance Committee member Derrick Mason then said his committee was recommending a no vote on the budget.
Mason said if the budget is not voted down, it would result in tough budget decisions and tax increases for the town. He said a no vote would reinforce that the town cannot afford to raise taxes by $200,000, and that the town requests collaboration on the budget process with Gateway. He said it would also reinforce the message to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) that the town is in trouble, and reinforces the case and appeal before the court challenging Worthington’s withdrawal.
Resident Gloria Farrell said in the 46 years she has lived in Russell this was the first time she ever spoke up at a town meeting. She also said the town could not afford the increase, adding that the increase in the over-minimum contribution being requested was a 31% percent increase of $172,000 to the town.
Farrell said Westfield is already paying $150,000 less this year for the lease of the Russell Elementary School, income which the town will lose completely next year. She also said that Russell currently has the sixth highest tax rate in Massachusetts at $21.86 per thousand, and the increase would mean adding $1 to $1.50 on top of that.
Farrell also said that next year (FY19), in addition to the loss of $100,000 on the Russell lease, and $50,000 in utilities for the school that the town will have to pick up, they will also have to begin to repay $40,000 to $50,000 for the loan on the school building to the state, for a total of $200,000 in new expenses next year.
“Can we afford to accept an increase of $170,000 knowing that in FY19 a $200,000 increase will have to be absorbed into the tax rate,” Farrell asked.
Tara Balboni, Gateway School Committee member from Russell, spoke up, saying that everything that everyone was saying was true. She said the School Committee has been working hard to make cuts, but they were spread out over six towns. She said expenses haven’t changed, due to increased costs in areas including special education, which the school has a legal obligation to cover.
Responding to several remarks about the superintendent’s salary, Balboni said that the salary as a percentage of the state per pupil average is an inaccurate comparison for rural districts that don’t have the economies of scale of more populated districts, but who have the same mandated expenses. She also said a new superintendent would save $50,000 for the district, at the most.
Balboni also encouraged residents to come to meetings and learn about the school budget process, rather than standing up once a year and complaining about the costs. She said the School Committee has also set up five joint meetings with the towns, but that no Russell residents have signed up.
“Borrowing against our children’s future is not the way,” she said.
Nick Balboni also spoke, saying he was speaking for himself. He said he was a product of public education, as he was sure most in the room were. “You may not have realized but somebody paid for you. They may not have had a single child in the school system, but they paid. Gateway is a great school. We as a community have a responsibility to educate the children. A budget has been put forward by elected officials, and we’re responsible to pay for it. It’s a social contract,” Nick Balboni said.
Resident Tim Hourihan said he is a parent of two boys entering 4th and 8th grade. He agreed that paying for schools is a social contract, as are real estate taxes. He said young people moving into a community look first at the school district, and the community’s support of it.
Hourihan also said his older son, who is autistic, has been affected by cuts. He said the teacher that used to work with three kids, now teaches ten kids.
Finance Committee member Ruth Kennedy encouraged residents to vote no on the question. She said since Worthington withdrew, “We’re stuck.” She asked who in the room would vote for a 2 ½ override if that became necessary.
“If we vote this down and Chester votes it down, we have one more chance. The School Committee can go back and lower town assessments. One more shot, and then DESE would come in,” Kennedy said.
The question was then moved, and the vote taken by a show of hands. The final vote was 20 yes, and 44 no. The deciding vote now goes to Chester, in a repeat of the Annual Meeting decision.