May 10, 2010
“An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don't.” This quote from Anatole France seems to aptly summarize the current discussion of Gateway’s budget in our communities. Given the contentiousness of this year’s budget due to difficult fiscal times and the consolidation of elementary schools, it’s not surprising to find that Worthington voted the budget down unanimously, Middlefield approved it by a greater than 2-to-1 margin and Blandford voted to support the budget unanimously. As I write this, Russell’s town meeting is 12 hours away and Montgomery’s is one week away. As most readers are aware, the district needs five out of seven towns to approve the budget—if three towns vote the budget down then the school committee must review and adopt a new budget (M.G.L. Chapter 71, Section 16B).
What many people assume is that the school committee must bring back a lower budget, but the truth is that the school committee may submit a lower budget, the same budget or a HIGHER budget. Given the state of Chapter 70 (state aid to schools), the school committee could adopt a lower budget yet the town assessments could remain the same or even increase—certainly not the idea that most people have when they opt to not support the initial budget.
The law also states that if a regional district does not have a budget in place by July 1, the district moves to a 1/12th budget based upon the current year’s budget, and towns would be obligated to pay their assessments monthly rather than quarterly. This is an unusual year in that the adopted budget for FY’ is actually lower (by $481,584) than the current year’s budget. If 3 towns vote the budget down, and we don’t have a new budget in place by July 1st, all towns will be assessed based upon this year’s budget (corrected for changes in minimum contributions and student numbers). Essentially this means that by voting the budget down, the towns may actually have to pay more than if they approved the budget.
Furthermore, if the district does not have a budget by December 1 st, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education ‘takes the district over’. In recent years, this has meant that the DESE determines the budget necessary to run the district (and this has, on occasion, been set higher than the district’s own proposed budget) and funds for that budget are deducted from local aid distributed to member towns, leaving day to day operations under the control of the superintendent and school committee.
The bottom line is that the district will continue to educate our children and, under statute, it would appear that by voting the proposed budget down, the district would actually make out at least as well, and probably better, than if the towns accepted and passed the budget. Given that this is an unusual year, this type of situation is not likely to occur routinely. I believe that it is better to know the reality rather than vote the perception when towns are deciding on whether or not to support the proposed budget. This difference between perception and reality could end up costing the towns much more than their elected officials anticipate, while still putting the district at risk in terms of long-term planning and our ability to meet student needs.