Superintendent’s Corner

Gateway Regional School District Superintendent Dr. David B. Hopson.

One of the most important questions that will be answered this spring regards the future of the Gateway School District and our six member towns.

During the many discussions facilitated by the MARS (Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools), consultants between town officials, school committee members and school administrators over the past two years, a common theme was how to stabilize town assessments so that swings in the state’s minimum funding levels and changes in student numbers from each town could be leveled out over time. It’s easy to understand why this was, and is, so important by simply looking at the large swings in year-to-year town assessments of hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single town.

This meant that although the overall school budget may have only increased by one percent, the changes in student percentages resulted in assessment changes ranging from a reduction of several percent to an increase of over ten percent between our towns. As we all recognize, changes of this magnitude are impossible to plan for, extremely difficult to finance, and often pitted one town against another. Thus, the statutory method of assessing a town’s share of the school budget often passed with a minimum of four towns voting for either a minor decrease, or an affordable increase, and leaving the unlucky towns that voted against the budget with significant increases in their educational costs. This system also helped to ensure that the district’s budget was not passed by the towns in two of the last five years leaving the DESE Commissioner to set the budget and taking the choice of how much each town paid in assessments away from the towns.

We recognized this was a significant planning and financial issue for our towns so the group focused on an alternative method of assessments that would be predictable, would eliminate the huge swings in individual town assessments on a year-to-year basis, and would allow for families with children to move into a town without causing a spike in educational costs. This resulted in the facilitated discussion group developing an alternative assessment method that increases each town’s assessment by the same percentage over the prior year. This group also convinced the DESE to approve this alternative assessment method despite the Commissioner’s desire to get the entire regional agreement updated before allowing any individual changes in the agreement. The alternative assessment amendment was unanimously voted by our six towns last year, approved by the Commissioner, and became part of the regional agreement, thereby allowing last year’s assessments to be a standard increase across all six towns.

Given that success, the school committee, with support from town officials (representing all six towns), opted to use the alternative assessment method this year with a 1.97% increase in each town’s assessment for the coming year. Once again this method assured towns of an affordable increase for all towns rather than some towns seeing a decrease and others a significant increase in educational costs, made the increase stable from last year to this year, and allowed towns to plan far in advance. This shows that the idea of the alternative assessment is working.

That is not to say that each town saves money each year using this method. In only two years we’ve seen some towns see a decrease in what they would have paid under the old assessment method, other towns see an increase in assessments from what they would have paid under the old assessment method, and some towns see an increase in one year and a decrease in the next year. Perhaps the most egregious and most concerning is the increased difference Russell paid last year, and would pay again this year, using the alternative assessment rather than the old assessment method. One must consider other factors when looking at the alternative assessment, for example what has been the historical change in students for a town, what would have been the difference in costs if we’d been using the alternative assessment for the last ten years, and what may happen over the next 10 years.

If we specifically look at Russell, the decrease in students in the last two years is a dramatic change from the 10 years increase in the percentage of Russell students attending the district. So the question is, will this aberration hold over time or will Russell’s student percentage increase as has been the historical pattern for eight of the last 10 years? Similarly, if we take what Russell paid over the last 10 years under the historical assessment method and compare it to what it would have paid under the new assessment method we can quickly see that Russell’s increase under the old method was nearly $400,000 over the last ten years but would have been less than $200,000 if the new alternative method had been used.

It’s easy to see from this information that taking the short term savings from using the old assessment method on a year-to-year basis does not work over the long-term and this doesn’t even take into consideration the stabilization of assessments this would have provided to each town under the new alternative method. That is why this year, and the next several, will be key to determining if the district and our six towns move forward in a unified manner, collaboratively choosing to stabilize assessments, be able to plan for the future, remove the financial impact of having families with children move into a town, and create ongoing opportunities to focus on improving our school district.

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