Mitigation funds for Gateway in jeopardy

BLANDFORD – At Wednesday’s Gateway Regional District School Committee meeting, Huntington Finance Committee member Darlene McVeigh said that she had received several emails from Rep. Stephen Kulik about the $630,000 in mitigation funding promised to Gateway to offset the financial impact of Worthington’s withdrawal.
Kulik has repeatedly assured Gateway that it would receive the funds.
“It appears the House passed the supplemental budget with the mitigation funds, and the Senate passed a different version without the mitigation funds,” McVeigh said.
She also spoke to Senators Donald F.  Humason and Benjamin Downing, who proposed an add-on to the Senate version that included the funds, but which was rejected.
She said there are 10 days before the Senate goes into recess, and she encouraged everyone to write to Senate President Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, and copy Humason and Downing, in support of the House’s earmark for mitigation funding for the Gateway district.
“We’re small potatoes out here, and we’re not important to Boston,” McVeigh said.
Superintendent David B. Hopson noted that there is a $6 million difference between the House and the Senate at this point. The next step will be a joint committee session.
Ruth Kennedy, school committee member from Russell, said that Oct. 22 is the initial court hearing on the injunction for Worthington’s withdrawal, being brought by herself and Derrick Mason, as pro se plaintiffs, and by the Gateway district, and the towns of Huntington and Blandford. She said the uncertainty of the mitigation funds will reinforce the plaintiffs’ case for financial difficulty.
Earlier in the meeting, finance committee members from Blandford joined McVeigh in expressing alarm that the new budget that was sent to the towns for approval is basically the same one the towns have already rejected twice.
Andy Montanaro of Blandford said his town rejected the budget on May 8 and September 10. In between, town officials asked the Blandford School Committee members to explore options for the children of Blandford, and they refused. In September, town representatives sent a letter to the School Committee to get serious about the budget. “We have now received the same assessment again. It’s getting old,” Montanaro said. “Something’s broken, and we’re not making any attempts to fix it.”
Four out of the six Gateway towns have twice rejected the FY2016 budget, which was resent to the towns for the third time after the school committee’s vote on Oc. 7. The Committee each time anticipated receiving the mitigation funds, which would reduce town assessments, and in theory allow them to pass the budget.
During the meeting, Hopson also gave a brief presentation on the budget for 2017, asking for direction. He asked if they should start by backing out the $630,000, which even if received for FY2016, is not anticipated for next year. Or, he said, should we back out the funds and add back in 2 1/2 percent for cost of living and other increases. The third option would be to hold the budget, and not back out the $630,000.
Hopson said a $630,000 reduction without adding in COLA increases, would be more like a $900,000 reduction.
The discussion was moved to November, to be able to take into consideration the outcome of Thursday’s hearing on the injunction.
At the very start of the meeting, Jim Duggan, president of the Gateway Teachers Association, read a statement saying the GTA is disappointed that it has yet to reach a fair agreement after bargaining for over a year. He said the teachers are asking for a “modest” salary increase.
Duggan said, “Our working conditions are students’ learning conditions.”
The union negotiations resumed during an Executive Session at the close of the School Committee meeting.

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