Hopson Defends Gateway Budget

HUNTINGTON – At yesterday’s Gateway budget hearing, Superintendent Dr. David B. Hopson presented Version 2.1 of the Gateway budget to 40 members of the Gateway staff, school committee, and residents of the seven Gateway towns.
He said the only difference in this version from the previous one (Version 2.0) is in the number of students. Due to a change in state policy, Gateway is now allowed to add pre-school students to its census.
Dr. Hopson began by saying that this budget is based on the current version of the state budget which is in the House, and likely won’t be passed by them until April, and by the Senate until June.
“We’ll have all of our town meetings done and taken care of before the (state) budget will come out,” Hopson said.
Version 2.1 represents a 2.5 percent increase of $411,235 over last year’s budget. This increase is $121,000 less than what was first requested in Version 1.0 last fall, and is the first increase in the Gateway budget in five years, according to Hopson.  Previously, Hopson said the bulk of the increase was due to the end of an educational jobs grant that helped offset health insurance in the amount of $258,556 this year.
In making the case for supporting the budget, Hopson outlined both the challenges and successes of the Gateway school district.  Among the challenges, Hopson listed reductions in state and grant funding, coupled with increased reporting requirements and unfunded mandates, such as a new law requiring that all teachers be fingerprinted over the next three years.
Hopson said Gateway has had a net loss of 5 percent in course offerings in the high school over the last five years.  This has resulted in fewer options for students, and fewer students in the performing arts. The school has added online courses in the high school, but they serve a minority of students. He also pointed to a shrinking student population.
Hopson said the cost of utilities continues to rise, as does health insurance.  The cost of running athletic programs also increases from year to year.  Hopson said Gateway has had success in keeping down the cost of utilities by implementing cost-saving lighting in the gymnasium and other conservation measures.
The budget also includes technology upgrades and a new security person. Hopson said Gateway has been featured in the news for its use of technology in the classroom, and the Massachusetts State Police recently cited Gateway as a model in safety and security.
Hopson also cited among Gateway’s successes in moving from a level three to a level two school in terms of MCAS scores. He said that 80 percent of Gateway students continue their education beyond high school, attending 82 different institutes of higher education. Of those institutions, 41 percent are ranked in the top 100 colleges and universities in the United States.
Hopson said that among respondents to a recent survey, 57 percent ranked Gateway’s program above average or excellent, and 35 percent ranked it as average.
Before opening the floor to questions, Hopson said, “Over the last five years, the school has made up all of the losses in state aid and has helped keep town assessment down by cutting the budget. If we cut and continue to cut, the reality is we’ll probably go back to multi-age classrooms in elementary school, larger class sizes, and eventually a reduction in athletics.”
“We spent $46 million in building new buildings, and we must maintain them,” he added.
“We did close three elementary schools, and we did lose students,” said Gretchen Eliason, school committee member from Worthington. “It may be that people with means are opting out of public schools.”
One resident asked if Gateway could promote school choice to increase income. Hopson said there has been a slight bump in school choice students at Gateway, but added that the remote location of the school is a problem in attracting students.
“Parents have to really want to bring those students for a twenty or thirty minute ride,” he said.
“If we don’t maintain the offerings we have now, which are less than five years ago, we may lose students going out for school choice,” said Ron Damon, school committee member from Huntington.
Hopson said that a recently implemented carpentry wood shop program, along with the school’s certified welding program, has kept some students from choosing vocational school. He said however, that other vocational programs would be too costly to implement.
When asked how Gateway plans for new courses, Hopson said he often looks for teachers with dual certifications.
“If I can find someone who is both math and business certified, we can fill both needs,” Hopson said.
Hopson was also questioned on whether Gateway could share teachers with other districts, or use volunteers, such as retired teachers. He said sharing teachers presents the same challenges with the distance between schools, with teachers spending much of their days driving. He also said parents are asked to volunteer, and some retired teachers are involved in the school.
“It’s a pretty tight-knit family,” Hopson said. “We have teachers who start here and stay here their whole career. Some of those teachers retire and come back to substitute.”
When asked if the problem Gateway had with its well last year was resolved, Hopson answered, “So well, we won the Massachusetts award for best drinking water!”
Hopson said the school committee now has three options. They can vote to increase the budget, to keep it at this level, or to decrease it. “If they decrease it, they’ll tell us by how much,” he said.
The school committee will vote on Version 2.1 Wednesday.
Hopson said school officials spent ten hours preparing a prioritized list for future cuts, which was distributed at the budget hearing. High on the list of cuts are a reduction in the hours of the secretarial pool at the school. A secretary present at the meeting asked Hopson why their filled positions were higher on the list of cuts than unfilled positions.
“Secretaries are absorbing more work yet losing more,” she commented.
Hopson said he will be meeting with the secretarial union on Friday.
“What happens at the state level will have a significant impact on how we resolve these budget issues,” said Derrick Mason, finance committee member from Russell.
He said the Gateway Towns Advisory Committee will be meeting with Rep. Steve Kulik, who is co-chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, at 9:30 am Saturday in the Gateway library. Mason urged everyone present to attend the meeting.

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