State ‘mandates’ Gateway trim budget

WESTFIELD – Gateway officials presented a trimmed FY 16 budget to the School Committee on Wednesday in response to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) resolution letter, after the towns failed to pass a budget by Dec. 1, which caused the state to assume fiscal operation for the district for the remainder of the fiscal year.
The letter from DESE Commissioner Mitchell Chester dated Dec. 18 stated: “At this point in the fiscal year, I am reluctant to approve any significant reduction in the school’s planned expenditures. However, based on the information provided, I believe this .25 percent reduction will allow the district to meet its goals and objectives for the year.” The decision was based on input in letters from member towns and the school district.
The reduction amounted to approximately $44,000, for a bottom line FY 16 budget of $16,362,662. New assessment letters will be sent to the towns later this month following approval by DESE, according to Gateway Business Manager Stephanie Fisk.
In the letter, Gateway was also directed by DESE to hire a consultant, subject to Commissioner Chester’s approval, “to support the district’s efforts to institute cost saving measures to create stability for the towns and meet the educational goals for the children.”
The maximum obligation for the consultant will be $30,000, according to the letter, which Gateway Superintendent David B. Hopson said amounted to “another unfunded mandate.”
In response to a question regarding how soon the consultant will be on board, Hopson said he will put together a Request for Proposal (RFP) that will have to be approved by DESE, and expects the process to take up to six months.
On the subject of unfunded mandates, Blandford Select Board and Finance Committee member Andy Montanaro presented a letter for endorsement by the School Committee to State Auditor Suzanne M. Bump, asking for an annual payment to the school district for the unfunded mandate resulting from the state allowing Worthington to leave the district.
During the discussion, Russell School Committee member Ruth Kennedy expressed concern about the timing of the letter, due to the ongoing legal suit against the state and the town of Worthington challenging the withdrawal. No response has yet been received from Judge Bertha Josephson regarding the hearing held in November to dismiss the suit.
“The only problem I have is that it’s too early to do this,” Kennedy said.
“The auditor has 60 days to respond. I believe it’s important for us to have a revenue figure that could be included into the budget,” Montanaro saad. “I believe that moving forward is not going to hurt us, and is in everybody’s best interest.”
Kennedy asked that the letter be run by legal counsel to determine whether it will impact the suit. The matter was postponed until the next meeting on Jan. 20.
School Committee Chair Michele Crane asked for an amendment to the regional agreement to change the schedule for payment of town assessments to four equal quarterly payments of 25 percent, due on the 15th of the payment month. Currently, the payments are due on the 1st and 15th on different months, in different amounts. The motion was made and passed.
Anne-Marie Buikus of Montgomery made a motion to resubmit to the towns the plan submitted last year known as “One Man, One Vote,” based on the Senate model in which two residents from each town would be seated on the School Committee following district-wide elections. Currently, Huntington, Chester and Russell have three representatives, and Blandford, Montgomery, and Middlefield have two. Buikus said by resubmitting the plan at this time, it could come up for a vote in this year’s annual town meetings. The motion passed.
During new business, Kennedy challenged the letter written and signed by Hopson and Crane in defense of the FY 16 budget, prior to DESE’s decision. Kennedy said by signing the letter as Chair, Crane implied that it had the endorsement of the School Committee, which had not seen the letter.
“At the least, the letter should have been shared with the School Committee at the Dec. 9 meeting,” Kennedy said. She called portions of the letter “arrogant and inflammatory,” and said the comments were “not what I voted for.” She added that Crane could have signed it under her name and not as chairman of the committee.
“Basically, we have always asked that anything we’ve sent out in our names, we should have a copy of it, to be able to ask questions before you send it out,” Buikus said.

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