September 28, 2009
On September 23, the final meeting to take public input regarding school consolidation was held at the Gateway Complex. This meeting was to hear from town officials and gather input on elementary school consolidation and the ability of the towns to increase property taxes to support education. As you may have read in the local news, town officials hotly debated several points in the discussions surrounding school consolidation, school funding and town finances.
The meeting began with a budget outlook for the 2010-2011 school year (FY’11). The bottom line is that anticipated increases in expenses, including a new bus contract, could reach $856,000 for a level-service budget (keeping everything essentially the same from this year to next year). We expect to need an additional $114,000 to meet the needs of our five elementary schools and make them more educationally equitable. Given the poor fiscal outlook of the state and reports of state cuts coming this fiscal year, we also have to consider the potential for losing both Chapter 70 funding and Regional Transportation Reimbursement in the amount of $726,000. If all of these items come to pass, our towns would again be required to not only pick up the entire cost of the increase of providing education, but also meeting the state’s continued decline in state aid to the Gateway District. The entire report can be found on the district’s website (www.grsd.org/) under the Fiscal Year 2011 budget development link.
It was quite evident from this meeting that the towns cannot afford a potential increase in assessments of $1.7 million, and that even minor increases in assessments might require Proposition 2 ½ overrides in several towns. Despite the sometimes heated exchanges regarding funding and the relationship of such to keeping all five elementary schools open, it quickly became apparent that the one item that everyone agreed with was that the schools and towns were not the primary causes of these fiscal problems but rather the decrease in state aid to both schools and towns (Chapter 70, Regional Transportation Reimbursement, Chapter 90, PILOT program as the major losses of revenue).
At the school committee meeting held later that same evening, Sue Levreault (Worthington School Committee Member) handed each member copies of articles from the Country Journal on the district from 1986 to 2008. It’s very interesting to read these articles and see that the same issues that confound us today are merely extensions of past years. School closings, discussions about the appropriateness of budget increases, the inability of towns to pay school assessments without cutting local services, the lack of voter participation and, no surprise, the problem being squarely placed upon state support for our towns and schools. I also noted that we have many of the same people arguing similar points over the past two decades, although some of them have moved from citizen to town official or town official to state official.
My concern with this pattern is that we haven’t consistently worked together to make a concerted effort to change the very real lack of state support for our rural communities and schools. We meet with elected state officials who, although some faces have changed, all have said the same thing over two decades—we don’t have enough clout or votes to make a difference at the state level. The closest we’ve come is the RED circuit breaker efforts from 2007, where rural school districts at least got some attention before the state started hemorrhaging revenue.
There is some movement in the legislature to begin considering changes to educational reimbursement in the hopes of having a more adequate formula when state revenues improve. We need to ensure that our voices, and those of school districts in similar situations, are heard and understood by policy makers. The analogy used in a long ago editorial was that the state puts the towns and the school into a bag like two cats and we spend so much time and energy fighting one another that we never think about addressing the issue of who put us in the bag. This strategy has evidently worked for decades and the results are once again pitting town against town, towns against schools, and creating ill feelings and dissension that, in the end, will only hurt our children. Isn’t it time to address the core issue and hold our elected state officials accountable for promises made and not fulfilled?