New ideas, hard feelings at Gateway budget discussion

HUNTINGTON – Although Wednesday’s School Committee meeting was not one of the joint budget sessions scheduled with the towns, the majority of the meeting sounded like one. A 90 minute discussion by committee members and representatives from the towns on the yet to be approved FY18 budget, brought forth some new ideas moving forward, and some hard feelings from the recent budget defeats in three of the towns.

Gateway School Committee discusses budget on Wednesday. (Photo by Amy Porter)

Following introductions by the School Committee for the benefit of the newest member from Huntington, Melissa Nazzaro, the meeting was open for public comment.
A former ten-year School Committee member a couple of decades ago, Robert Daley of Chester commended the committee for its work, and congratulated Gateway on its 60th anniversary this year. “Tens of thousands well served. Thousands of success stories,” he said.
Daley said he recently came out of retirement to support local leaders. “I urge you to embrace the collaborative model and join the team, to try to make Gateway sustainable for the future. Town leaders must have an equal seat at the table,” Daley said. He said it would take creative thinking, because “the school budget footprint cannot grow any larger.” He said if they work together, the towns would find a majority of voters to support the budget. He also noted the risk of withdrawal of another town, and closing of another school.
“Serve, make a difference – you have, you are, you do,” Daley said.
Chester selectman John Baldasaro said Gateway still has “some pain to go through. 50% of the towns have turned down the budget twice.” He said for the town of Chester, it wasn’t strictly for financial reasons. “We can’t afford to let any more towns leave the district. Right now, you have to take a hard look at the budget,” he added.
“Three towns did vote for the budget,” responded School Committee chair Michele Crane of Blandford.
Some of the new ideas that emerged on Wednesday included lobbying the state and the Massachusetts School Building Association (MSBA) for forgiveness on the loan for the closed Blandford Elementary School, which is being used for town hall and police department offices.
“We continue to pay for Blandford School. That’s something towns and school could work on with MSBA, to waive the fee if the building is being used for a municipal building,” said Gateway Regional Superintendent Dr. David B. Hopson. “Maybe that’s something we can work with Select Boards on. It would make a significant dent in the budget,” he added, saying that, rather than paying MSBA for the next six years, they could reduce assessments by $260,000.
Gateway business manager Stephanie Fisk said the district has been paying for fourteen years. “We’re more than half-way through. We have some leverage,” she said
One of the requests the towns have had is to urge Gateway to share services with surrounding districts. Hopson said at the meeting that he has tried with five different positions, but said, “I haven’t found the second person wiling to tango.” The closest he came, he said, was a shared food services director position. In the end, however, the candidate asked for both salaries, wiping out savings.
Fisk said the district is helping towns contact contractors “It might be better to look at that (school and towns) in terms of shared services,” Fisk said.

Town officials in attendance actively participated in the meeting on Wednesday. (Photo by Amy Porter)

Another new idea came from Jeanne LeClair, the new Hilltown economic development director introduced by Andrew Myers of Chester at the start of the meeting. LeClair said she is looking to make a video, in the style of one made by Richmond, MA that answered the question “Why Richmond?” She said the video would promote the towns and the schools, adding that Richmond has no more school choice seats to fill this year. Several School Committee members offered to work with LeClair on ideas for the video.
School Committee members expressed their frustrations throughout the meeting on the rejection of Version 2 of the FY18 school budget, which was $106,000 lower than the initial version rejected by three towns at annual meetings this spring.
“We are doing what we can to satisfy the towns’ needs. I’m concerned about maintaining the level of education that we offer,” said long-time Huntington member Ron Damon, adding that he would be “vehemently opposed” to further reductions.
Another long-time School Committee member, Shirley Winer of Chester, said there were a lot of misconceptions about what the budget is spent on, many of them “the same as 20 years ago.”
At her first meeting, Nazzaro suggested that simplifying the budget presentation might help. “My full-time job is with the City of Springfield. We had a similar conflict with city employees and the City Council (over the budget process),” Nazzaro said. She said over time they worked up to a comfort level with the budget, where both sides agreed there was no excess spending.
“We need a “Budget for Dummies,” a way to present a budget in simpler terms. We have a lot of young parents who don’t have a lot of time,” Nazzaro said. She said there’s got to be a way to ‘dumb it down,’ adding the budget presentation was “something that we should do in five slides. “ She also suggested having the assumptions people make listed, and answering them.
Huntington, like Chester, wasn’t voting it down on financial issues. “They wanted assurances on sharing services,” Nazzaro said. Hopson asked her to send him one of the slide presentations.
After a discussion on what direction to take Version 3 of the budget, most School Committee members were not eager to make more cuts.
Fisk said the budget had already been reduced another $39,000, but two new special education teachers to be hired were an unknown. She said the hires should be made by the next School Committee meeting.
“I agree with my colleagues. There are no more places to cut. I’ve been doing this for 10 years. You folks are talking about offering an olive branch – it’s very hard. Mean-spirited things have been said in meetings and in the press. They won’t be tolerated anymore,” said Crane.
“It’s very difficult to start off a year like this. It’s hard particularly because two of the towns that voted it down say they can afford it,” Fisk said. She promised to have some numbers by the next meeting.

To Top