Suriner volunteers as new co-moderator of Gateway Task Force

HUNTINGTON – The Gateway Collaborative Task Force, comprised of government, business, and school district representatives from the six remaining Gateway towns, met on Thursday evening in Stanton Hall to continue the discussion of the potential for shared services and ongoing Gateway Regional budget issues.
During the meeting, Noreen Suriner of Middlefield volunteered and was voted in as co-moderator, along with Darlene McVeigh, for the ongoing work of the Task Force. Suriner previously served on the Middlefield Select Board and on the Gateway School Committee.
Derrick Mason, one of the Task Force founders, is stepping down as co-moderator.
“I’m hoping to park an old van under a bridge in Florida for a couple of months,” Mason said, presumably tongue-in-cheek. Suriner thanked Mason and McVeigh for the “wonderful job” they had done to get the Task Force started.
Mason said the letter that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester sent to the Gateway district in December setting its budget specifically referred to the work of the Task Force. The letter stated: “We support the work of the Gateway Sustainability Task Force to consider district and/or municipal operational changes that might improve services while increasing economic efficiencies.”
“This is our opening,” Mason said. “Commissioner Chester has agreed it is part of our mission to work on this.”
The letter from DESE also required that the Gateway School District engage a consultant, subject to Chester’s approval, “to institute cost saving measures to create stability for the towns and meet the educational goals for the children of the district moving forward.”
In prior meetings, the Task Force had also been discussing hiring a consultant to move its agenda forward, and had been discussing ways to fund the position. Gateway has been instructed by DESE to spend up to $30,000 for the consultant.
Andy Montanaro, who serves on Blandford’s Select Board, asked whether there would be overlap in the jobs of the two consultants.
“No, this is somebody the school has got to hire,” said Ruth Kennedy, a School Committee member from Russell. “DESE’s going to be strict.”
She said that as a group, the Task Force could feed information to the consultant that the school hires.
Gateway Superintendent David B. Hopson noted that the letter mentioned central office, maintenance, and towns and schools shared services.
“We’ll need a couple of weeks for RFPs (Request for Proposals), and to get DESE’s approval,” Hopson said in response to a question about how long it would take to get a consultant on board. “We’re looking for a rough draft by October.”
Anne-Marie Buikus, School Committee member from Montgomery said the consultant wouldn’t be able to help on the FY 16 budget, but would on the budget that is being prepared for FY 17.
Suriner asked if the FY 17 budget were approved by the towns, would DESE then end its involvement with the district.
“DESE will have control until the end of June,” Hopson said. “We’ll still have the consultant.”
Hopson said in reality, fiscal control by DESE is done by email and phone, and day-to-day operations have not changed.
“They didn’t tell us which line items to cut,” he said, referring to the .25 percent cut in the FY 16 budget which DESE ordered.
Gateway Business Manager Stephanie Fisk said that the line item budget that the School Committee reviewed at Wednesday’s meeting also went to DESE. The School Committee will be setting the FY 17 budget.
“I’ve been told by DESE that they have fiscal control until June 30, but if the School Committee doesn’t come up with a budget the towns can afford, DESE will help,” Kennedy said.
“Let me suggest that the School Committee solicit from the towns what they can afford, which input might facilitate the process,” said Tony van Werkhooven, Finance Committee member from Blandford. “Right now there is no input from the towns.”
McVeigh encouraged Task Force members and interested town officials to attend the next School Committee meeting at Gateway on January 20.
“In my town, the Select Board is recommending that the School Committee members, Select Board and Finance Committee get together,” said Mason of Russell.
“Call your state legislator and express concerns,” McVeigh said. “One of the things we specifically requested was that DESE have a physical presence as we go through the budget process. DESE works at the pleasure of the legislature.”
In other business, Mason encouraged Task Force members to sign up for sub-committees, and return their choices to him by the end of the meeting. He also said that recent Gateway graduate and Task Force member Kyle Bessette of Blandford has volunteered to set up a Facebook page for the group.
“As soon as that is up and running, we will be able to start using this for the committees,” Mason said.

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