Million dollar Gateway increase discussed

HUNTINGTON – On Saturday, a dozen members of the Finance Committees, School Committee and Select Boards from four of the six Gateway district towns gathered at Stanton Hall in Huntington for a meeting of the Gateway Towns Advisory Committee (GTAC), moderated by Derrick Mason of the Russell Finance Committee, and Darlene McVeigh of the Huntington Finance Committee. Dr. David Hopson was also present, representing the Gateway Regional School District.
The meeting began on a somber note with Andy Montanaro, chairman of the Blandford finance committee passing out a resolution to revise the 2016 Gateway Regional School District budget Version 1, which was voted on the week before, to reflect an overall assessment increase to the remaining towns of no more than 2.5 percent. The current version, due to the Worthington withdrawal and unknowns from the state, including whether Gateway will receive any funds to mitigate the loss of Worthington, represents a far higher percentage increase to each town’s assessment.
“Neither am I prepared to gut our town for one line of expense that accounts for more than half our budget,” Montanaro said.
Hopson responded that the resolution may be more in line after the state budget is fixed.
“How do you prepare any kind of a budget that is reasonable when we find ourselves in the circumstances we are now in?” Mason asked.
Anne-Marie Buikus, school committee representative from Montgomery, said the committee passed Version 1 because they didn’t want to pass a transitional budget. By law, the school committee has to pass a budget by the third week of March in advance of the annual town meetings.
Jeff Wyand, school committee representative from Huntington, said he went along with Version 1 because there was no change to the educational plan that was submitted to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) as required by the legislation allowing Worthington to withdraw from the district. “With this budget, we have planned for the best, but we have not planned for the worst, in my opinion,” he said.
Hopson wrote in his column published in The Westfield News on March 24, “While this ‘no change’ budget, which essentially is close to a level-service budget, effects little change in the district, its affordability rests heavily upon receiving $630,000 in mitigation funding from the state. Without such funding, the cost of maintaining the current system to the towns is an increase in assessments of over one million dollars.”
“The reality is, to get down to Andy’s 2.5 percent resolution, we’d have to do more damage than the worst case scenario,” Hopson said Saturday.
One of the alternate proposals to the school committee had included closing Chester’s elementary school.
“There is no way we can afford the budget without an override,” Tony van Werkhooven, GTAC member from Blandford, said. “Historically, we have starved our town in order to do the school budget. We’re coming to the end of the road. It seems that a school district of less than 900 students is not very efficient.”
“I don’t think it’s a bad idea to look at an overhaul, but you’re not going to do that in the next few months, or even two years,” Hopson said. “The question is ‘how do you find another school district to partner with you?’”
Hopson added that this might be a good time to study the question, with two central administrators retiring in the next two years, and the superintendent (referring to himself) gone in three years.
“The reality is that we’re not getting the support of the state, said Dan Jacques, GTAC member from Montgomery. “On top of it, we had a unilateral move made by one town and (backed) by the Commonwealth. Any serious discussion should involve our legislators. Get the legislators here and say, `all right guys, you said you’d help us.’ The state stirs this up and then walks away.”
Montanaro then passed out a letter that he had drafted to state representatives and the DESE, referring to the cost to the district of the Worthington withdrawal, and the growing number of unfunded mandates placed on the school district and local communities. The letter asked for material support to the district.
“The school committee is doing its job,” Ed Renauld, selectman from Huntington, said. “The reality is, the town cannot raise the amount for this budget without an override, and I’m not going to recommend that.”
“We’re going in with half of the school budget,” said Linda Smith of the Blandford Finance Committee said. “I refuse to mention the override. The state mitigation will get us toward our target.”
“I think representative is the loosest word I’ve ever seen,” Smith said. “They tell us what we want to hear, because they want our vote. We can hear them one more time, and then we should get a coalition of six towns and go see the governor.”
Wyand agreed with the sentiment.
“The school has been doing its job,” he said. “The ever-increasing portion to the towns is the lack of state aid. We definitely have to get the money back from the state. It’s the only answer. I agree, it’s tearing our communities apart.”
Mason said there are three big issues. The first is unfunded mandates. The second issue is dealing with the DESE, and pursuing the lawsuit against the state to slow the withdrawal process down. The third is to pursue as vigorously as possible mitigation funds.
“I think the option of looking at some drastic cuts or reorganization with other schools should be done publicly,” he said.
McVeigh requested a list of unfunded mandates impacting the Gateway district from Hopson, and offered to write a letter to State Auditor Suzanne Bump with a formal complaint. She said she will ask all of the towns’ officials to sign on. The committee then voted to support McVeigh’s offer.
McVeigh also suggested that the letter by Montanaro specifically mention mitigation funding. Hopson added that it should also state that the funding be put in place in a way that it can’t be eliminated in a future budget.
Montanaro said he would run the letter with the changes by all of the select boards and the school committee.
The next meeting of the GTAC committee will be held on April 18. An effort will be made to get representation by the select boards in all six towns of the Gateway district.

To Top