Superintendent’s Corner

The enhanced dialogue between town officials, the school committee and district administration—both during school committee meetings and in our facilitated discussion series—has led to some mutually agreeable next steps for action. While we are still not in total agreement on how to move forward with next year’s budget, general consensus is that there are several actions that could help us make the process easier as we move forward, which require some support from the state.

One of the items that we all have a common concern about is the great fluctuation between town assessments from one year to another. So, while the overall assessment may be low (the average being slightly less than 2.5% over the last 15 years), some towns can see increases approaching double digits while other towns see decreases. These differences are based upon changes in their percentage of students enrolled in the district as well as on state mandated changes in minimum contribution by town. While there are some long-term solutions that could be put into place to smooth these swings out (for example using a five-year rolling average) this would require revising Gateway’s regional agreement. That is not a likely scenario for this budget year. However, the state auditor has recommended that the DESE consider ‘piloting’ some alternative assessment methods. When the acting Commissioner was asked about this, he indicated the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would consider this but would need legislative approval to move forward. At a recent meeting, the town officials and district officials asked our legislators to consider moving the ability to pilot assessment programs for regional schools forward this year.

Another major hurdle for our towns is the repayment, or clawback, by the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) of the money the state put into renovating our now closed elementary schools. The general consensus of our officials is that this should be waived, especially if these buildings are being used for municipal purposes (i.e., the Blandford Elementary building now houses town offices). What has been pointed out is that, as school populations shrink in Western Massachusetts and the state looks towards consolidation as a means of becoming more cost efficient, the repayment to MSBA reduces, or in some cases may eliminate, any potential savings. It’s like being stuck between a consolidation push by the DESE and paying back the MSBA when you do consolidate. Again, our officials asked for legislative help with this issue at a recent meeting.

The idea of school choice, originally intended to allow students to leave a failing school district to go to a better school district, has morphed into a debacle in Massachusetts that many superintendents would like to change. One idea is that the state needs to set an application deadline, as they do for example with vocational schools, so that a district can better anticipate budgetary impacts and plan accordingly. In addition, the original legislation enacting school choice set a two percent cap that we feel should be applied to every district, especially those that are not failing by the state’s definition.

While these requests do not add additional costs to the upcoming state budget process, there are other requests that do and therefore would require legislative and executive appropriations. These include the long time promise of 100% regional transportation reimbursement. While the DESE believes 100% reimbursement does not promote efficiency, the legislature and Governor have not set a hard target so that regional schools can budget appropriately. In addition, the reimbursement language does not include any incentives for saving money on busing; for example, Gateway has reduced our number of buses, and therefore costs, each year for many years. All we see for that effort is a reduction in reimbursement the following year.

There is also a significant push by the Rural Schools Coalition (which Gateway belongs to) to enact Rural School Aid to support those schools whose student populations are decreasing to the point that educational opportunities are becoming more unequal with our suburban counterparts. In addition, there has been much discussion over the years of decreasing unfunded mandates but a new twist has been added recently, this being that there should be some sort of delineation on mandates between small schools/towns and our larger urban counterparts.

While we could certainly outline other ideas for state and federal changes that would help our schools and towns move forward in a positive manner, the ones outlined here would suffice at this point to support our schools and allow our towns an easier time of financially supporting our students.

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