HUNTINGTON – Gateway Regional Schools Superintendent Dr. David B. Hopson presented the working FY18 budget at a public hearing on Wednesday evening, at which officials from the six Gateway towns participated.
Hopson said the process began in September, and a line item budget was given to the School Committee in January. The budget covers the two K-5 elementary schools in Chester and Littlefield, then in the Gateway complex a 6-8 middle school and the 9-12 high school. He said that configuration, which was new this year when the fifth grade moved back into the elementary schools, seems to be working.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good system at this point,” Hopson said.
He noted that Gateway is a Level 2 district, after Littleville elementary went from a Level 3 to a Level 1 school, joining the high school at Level 1, although he added he doesn’t put that much weight on MCAS or PARCC scores.
He also commended the School Committee for caring about the whole child. He said Gateway is a small district with a dedicated staff, great academics and a great social environment. He also said that a large percentage of students go to college, many the first in their families to do so. Once in college, he said they are doing well, and are well prepared.
Hopson said they have a great Life Skills program at Gateway, but one that is too wide in age, and they are working to offer more opportunities to students who are 18-21 in that program, including hiring a teacher this year. They are also transitioning to small buses, having purchased one that can transport students to outside programs.
“The more we can grow that in-house, the more we can save money for the district,” Hopson said
He said the number one priority for the district and the School Committee is to enhance student services.
Hopson said the budget overall has cost increases of over $1 million, and savings of $500,000. Much of the savings have been in energy savings, he said. The budget increase they are presenting to the towns is at 1%, a $160,000 increase to the bottom line. He also added that the budget is $1.7 million less than in 2009.
The impact on the towns however is greater. Hopson said assessments are up 2.71% overall but vary from town to town, ranging from -5.94% in Middlefield, to an increase of 5.04% in Huntington and 9.54% in Russell, the only two towns with an increase. He said the increases are primarily due to increases in the number of students. He said Russell and Huntington have 60% of the students in the district, and almost 50% of the population.
Huntington selectman Ed Renauld asked Hopson what the change in the student population has been since 2009. Hopson responded that there are 300 students less than there were in 2009, or 25% fewer overall. Currently, Gateway has 797 students in preK-12.
Hopson said a recent report by MARS (Massachusetts Association of Retired Superintendents) after a six-month long review, found that Gateway’s per pupil cost is in the middle of schools in Western Mass., not high and not low. He said since 2009, Blandford, Chester, Middlefield and Montgomery are paying less in assessments, but Huntington and Russell are paying considerably more.
“We wouldn’t be here if the state paid 100% of regional transportation,” Hopson said. He said so far state budget changes have only helped big urban schools. He encouraged the towns to continue to lobby for more funding for regional transportation.
Hopson also said that $80,000 that has been billed annually to Worthington for its share of OPEB costs since they left the district in 2015 hasn’t been paid, so while they will continue to be billed, that amount has not been put in the budget. Litigation between Gateway Regional School District and several other plaintiffs and the town of Worthington is ongoing.
Hopson also encouraged the towns to adopt the MA Rural School Aid Proposal, which calls for an increase in Chapter 70 aid for rural schools. He said if the district starts pushing for that, along with other rural districts throughout the state, the coalition would anticipate filing legislation for FY19.
Another proposal that would impact the towns is to consider a 5-year rolling average in assessments, that would allow towns to budget without the highs and lows that come from a changing school population.
“If we’re all in it together, it could even out over five years,” Hopson said.
Hopson said all six towns would have to agree to it every year. He said this year the School Committee will send out the statutory assessments, but the letters will also show what the 5-year rolling average would be. He said the School Committee doesn’t have the legal authority to make that change.
Hopson also said that if all the towns agreed to the rolling average at the town meetings, it would still have to be approved by DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) and the DOR (Department of Revenue). Hopson thinks they would agree to the formula.
Further adjustments to the budget will be made once Gateway gets the March 1 student census and the state budget is finalized, which he said will be in May at the earliest.
“Since 2009, Gateway has lost 25% of its student population. Huntington is an aging community. We’re not drawing young families, we’re losing them. Something needs to be looked at. If the trends continue, in a couple of years, the towns won’t be able to afford the school,” Renauld said.
Hopson said Gateway is not unique as most of the towns in Western Mass. are in a similar situation. He said the only place that the population is growing is east of Rte. 495 and in major urban cities.
“That’s the reason we should support rural aid to education,” Hopson said.
“Let’s not just sit back and say just because it is happening in other districts. We’re paying for excess capacity. We don’t have the answers, we have the problem,” said Chester town representative Andy Myers.
Gateway High School principal Jason Finnie said that the numbers are a little deceptive. He said next year, there will be 10 more students in the Middle School, and 20 more in the High School. He said the real issue is how to attract more students to Gateway.
Darlene McVeigh, Huntington Finance Committee chair said that the School Committee needs to get serious. She said a letter issued from DESE encouraged the district to actively engage in discussions with other school districts for potential cost savings.
“I’ve been working eight months to get a shared cafeteria director,” Hopson said. He said other needed positions, such as a technology and curriculum director, would increase the budget even if shared with another district because they are not currently filled.
‘We’d like to know the direction the School Committee would like to go. Our town has asked the School Committee to come to our budget hearing. The towns are looking to share costs where they can share costs,” McVeigh said.
“I don’t think anyone is saying that we don’t want to work together,” Hopson said.
The School Committee will have the new March 1 student census numbers at its next meeting on March 8. The budget must be approved by the School Committee at the March 8 or March 22 meeting, 45 days in advance of town meetings.