June 29, 2017
During its special meeting held June 28, the school committee unanimously adopted Version 2 of the 2017-2018 school budget. With this vote, the district will send out new assessment letters to the towns triggering a 45 day window for the towns to reconsider the school budget. As the assessments are lower than the original budget, towns that have already approved the budget (Blandford, Middlefield and Montgomery) do not need to hold a special town meeting to approve the lower amount. This revised budget now has an average assessment to the towns of less than 2.5%.
We’re pleased to have had town officials attend the special meeting. The majority of discussion revolved around the need to change the budget development process for the 2018-2019 school year and ways to provide information directly to selectboards and finance committees, rather than just having it available on the district’s website. As we’ve mentioned previously, the school committee has already started this process by inviting towns to choose officials to participate in the budget development process beginning in September and continuing throughout the year. In addition, the school committee has asked towns if they would like to participate in, and help fund, a ‘facilitated discussion’ around budgetary issues from both the towns’ and school’s perspectives, including future planning regarding capital expenditures. Both of these were recommendations from the MARS study group. We have already heard that both Blandford and Chester have appointed people to participate in the budget development process and hope that other towns will follow suit. (There appeared to be consensus that this expanded budget development process could not be applied to this year’s budget revision due to the statutory timelines that both the district and its member towns face once the original budget failed at annual town meetings.)
It was also great to hear of several other areas where some additional collaboration between the schools and towns may be able to put into place. The state also seems to be supportive of Gateway and its member towns looking at new ideas as a potential testing bed for greater adoption throughout Massachusetts in areas facing similar issues and constraints. While DOR has proposed a new model for operating town finances in what is essentially a regional approach for the six towns, there may be many other areas where increased communication and collaboration may yield positive benefits to all the parties involved.
We urge the towns to support this version of the budget so that we can all move forward with the work of educating students and begin the process of collaborating on the budget for 2018-2019, rather than continue to labor over a budget for the fiscal year that will have begun by the time you read this column. Although education will continue because the state will set a 1/12th budget beginning in July (and if necessary set a budget on December 1 if the towns don’t approve this new budget) this is not beneficial to a positive start to a more collaborative process in terms of preparation and time for reflection, review, and establishing a budget in a timely fashion.