April 6, 2018
With the first town meetings just around the corner, this has been a quiet year regarding the school budget in terms of negative press, arguments at the budget hearing and even questions about the line item budget. I believe that this is due to the months of collaboration between the school committee, school staff and town officials at school committee and facilitated discussion meetings. This has allowed a much more free flowing exchange of ideas, information and potential options. For those who have not participated in these meetings and wish to review some of the collaborative work, I suggest reviewing the budget information on the district’s website (www.grsd.org) and reading the school committee minutes that are also posted there.
If one takes the time to do this, it’s evident that this effort has produced both a budget and a potential alternative assessment method that holds expenditures to a reasonable level while laying the groundwork for predictable changes in multi-year assessments. The proposed budget doesn’t address some of the long term issues of creating shared administrative positions in areas where Gateway is short of administrators, doesn’t add additional funding to long term post-retirement benefits and doesn’t address the issue of planning for long term capital projects. However this budget reflects the need to keep town assessments low while adding minimal funding to potentially save money in the future by improving special education programs and by continuing the support of a long term literacy improvement program for all students. At the same time, this budget maintains all of the student services, athletic programs and student activities from this year to next and does not require any costly layoffs of staff. I believe the questions raised by town officials and citizens related to presentations about our student programs were appropriate and provided information and insight into the changing landscape of education. These included the growing need to address social/emotional learning, the increase in students requiring special services for many issues from physical needs to academic support, and the significant increase in our district’s free and reduced lunch population.
One other area of significant agreement related to the revenue side of the budget. The fact that we’re still advocating for an equitable distribution of school aid between small and rural schools and our larger urban counterparts, that we have no significant increases in our reimbursement for regional transportation and the reality that school aid across the Commonwealth no longer reflects the actual costs of items such as health insurance all indicate the increasing burden of paying for education shifting from the state to individual towns. When we add into this mix the fact that the state is still requiring the district to ‘pay back’ the money to build schools that were then repurposed for municipal uses—despite the state’s push to become more efficient—we can all see a need to advocate with our elected state officials to change the way rural, regional schools are funded.
We can see how these factors have made developing and passing a school budget difficult over the last few years and this provides an indication of how much progress we’ve made this year with everyone working together to develop a budget that’s acceptable to all parties. I’m also pleased that the towns and the district have decided to continue the work done during this year’s facilitated discussions into the coming year, as this bodes well for our collaborative efforts to change local, regional and state support for both the schools and our towns.