September 14, 2017
The Gateway Regional School Committee adopted version 3.0 of the 2017-2018 budget at their meeting on September 13. This budget made no changes in student services but managed to reduce assessments by nearly $54,000. As explained to the school committee and town officials attending from all six towns, the difference between the original ‘improvement’ budget and version 3.0 shows a total reduction of $1,469,948. Given all of the changes, the budget is up 0.63% and the overall assessment increase is 1.85%. This has resulted in an additional decrease in each town’s assessments with three towns having an assessment less than last year and Chester having an increase of only 0.08 (or $1,179). The reality is that the new assessments are only up slightly from the 1/12th budget that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education set at the end of June.
There was much discussion on this revised budget, including one town official who indicated that the district’s costs for elementary schools hadn’t risen much per student but the high school had increased significantly, leading to the statement that we perhaps should maintain an elementary regional school district and look at ‘restructuring’ the high school. While looking at cost factors that may be driving these changes, including ensuring that this official’s original analysis was valid, is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, it is too late to consider that for this year’s budget deliberations.
This was also the first ‘joint’ budget meeting with town officials and we spent some time looking at basic budgeting and anticipated changes for the 2018-2019 district budget. As we move forward with developing next year’s budget (and passing the current year’s budget would certainly provide more time for working on that), it’s also important that we begin scheduling some facilitated discussions, moderated by the same MARS staff that reviewed the district a year ago, to begin to lay out a framework for the future. As one town official noted, the school budget (and by extension, town budgets) are like ocean liners – changing the direction takes much time and effort—therefore major changes to how the schools and towns operate takes much planning, analysis, and most importantly, time. Much like the potential for all Berkshire County schools to be combined into a single region, the process may take decades of planning, collaboration, and multiple implementation steps.
Meanwhile, educating students must still occur with appropriate budgetary support from member towns. In any case, the process of agreeing to a process, settling on certain parameters, using agreed upon information, and ensuring both short and long term goals are met is important to providing a base for improving collaboration and becoming efficient at solving problems.
As always, the information shared with the school committee (and now concurrently with town officials), will be posted to the district website for the public’s review. Hopefully the towns will pass this version of the current year’s budget so that we can focus more fully on planning for the future.