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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Joint Legislative Committee on Education

March 29, 2016

Representative Brian S. Dempsey, House Chair
Senator Karen E. Spilka, Senate Chair
Representative Stephan Kulik, House Vice Chair
Senator Sal N. DiDomenico, Senate Vice Chair
Representative Benjamin Swan, House Assistant Vice Chair
Senator Patricia Jehlen, Senate Assistant Vice Chair

Dear Members of the House and Senate Committees on Ways and Means,

As both the superintendent and a resident of a town in the Gateway Regional School District, Chapter 70 funding is critical to the success of not only our school district but also for the viability of our district towns. The loss of the town of Worthington to our school district has resulted in a significant decrease in revenue.  For FY 2016, the state provided mitigation funding of $630,000.  Even with this generous one-time funding, assessments for three of the six towns in the district increased well over 2.5%.

For FY 2017, after taking into consideration nearly $427,000 in budget cuts (from a budget that totals less than $16,000,000), assessments to three of the six towns are again projected to increase over 2.5%.

In reality, the FY 2017 budget is nearly $175,000 lower than the FY 2003 budget and reflects both increased efficiencies and a reduction in services. During that time period the share of the district budget supported by the state has flipped, in FY’03 the state supported over 60% of the total budget, that figure is now under 40%. So, despite holding the budget essentially level for the past 14 years, town assessments have increased dramatically. In truth this is due to the Chapter 70 formula and hold harmless provisions not reflecting reality as well as the lack of a consistent funding of regional transportation reimbursement. More than fifty years ago, the state promised our district 100% transportation reimbursement as an incentive to let go of our local school districts and enter into a shared educational experiment in order to provide a better quality of education for our children.  Gateway was formed and has been providing a quality education to our children for over fifty years.

As a small rural school district with a total 6 town population of less than 8,000, a total school population of less than 900, 171.9 square miles over which our children are bussed, and bus routes - despite significant reductions in numbers of busses - that cover the distance between Huntington, MA and Huntington Beach, CA 2.7 times a week, transportation costs represent a significant percentage of the FY 2017 school budget (Regular Transportation $933K and Special Education $677K).  The consistent underfunding of regular regional school transportation reimbursement and the fact that reducing our transportation costs also reduces our state reimbursement, strains not only the budgets of local towns, it takes away from the funding needed for vital services provided to the students in our schools.

Gateway’s six rural communities, where education costs represent more than 50% of a town’s budget, cannot  continue to sustain funding such increases without impacting other basic services provided to our residents. Furthermore, any additional reductions in the district’s budget will severely curtail student opportunities.

To that end, I am requesting positive action on three items:
  1. That you support a regional transportation reimbursement rate that is closer to its promised commitment of 100% reimbursement,
  2. That you support the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s (MMA) request in its letter of February 29th, to increase the “minimum aid” amount to $100 per student, instead of the $20-per-student amount in the Governor’s budget, and
  3. That you support the MMA’s recommendation to implement the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission.


Dr. David B. Hopson

Pc: Senator Ben Downing
     Senator Don Humason
     Representative Smitty Pignatelli
     Representative Peter Kocot

Gateway 2025 Forum Findings

Findings from the Gateway 2025 Visioning Forum

Friday, March 4, 2016

Gateway 2025 Survey Results

 The initial summary of the District Survey for Gateway 2025 can be found here: Results from Gateway 2025 Survey.

The results from the Gateway 2025 Forum will be posted after the school committee meeting on March 9.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Gateway 2025 Visioning Survey

After many revisions based upon input from students, parents, community members and staff, the Gateway 2025 Visioning Survey is open to the public (at survey link or complete the survey in this blog). The survey will remain open until October 15 and should take between 20 and 30 minutes to complete. The survey does not collect your email ensuring and information will only be reported out in a summary format.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Prior to Blandford’s Special Town Meeting on September 10, a yellow ‘information’ sheet (see original at the end of this document) was made available to the public at the Blandford General Store. The following document provides both the information from that document (unknown at this time but I’m told by Tony VanWerkhoven that the finance committee had nothing to do with the document) in black, and a response provided by the district (in blue italics).

2016 School Assessment Issues
  1. A 14.6% ($216,000) increase is TOTALLY unrealistic. We do NOT have that much money to send to Gateway.
    1. Nearly $80,000 of this increase is mandated by the state.
    2. Over $52,000 is due to fixed costs of debt and transportation.
    3. The town used $44,500 approved for education in FY’15 to offset town costs rather than take the school committee chair’s suggestion of setting this aside for educational costs, especially with the anticipated impact of the withdrawal of Worthington.
    4. As pointed out Dr. Hopson’s July 21 memo to the selectboard,
      1. The town set aside nearly $300,000 for reserve and stabilization accounts,
      2. The total educational costs for Blandford are a significantly smaller portion of the town budget for 2016 than they were in 2010 (see finance committee figures showing a decrease from 62.8% to 51.2%) and for just Gateway, the decrease is from 58.2% in FY’10 to 46.8% as approved at the ATM,
      3. Even if the ATM had voted the total Gateway assessment without mitigation funding, the percentage of the town budget spent on Gateway in 2016 would still have been lower by more than 8% than it was in 2010,
      4. If the town had increased education funding by 2.5% a year (the number that’s often thrown out as being ‘affordable’ under Proposition 2½) the total assessment would then be greater than the current FY’16 assessment without mitigation funding,
      5. The school district did not expect the town to approve the entire assessment amount due to the issue of mitigation funding; however, the fact that the town now has two fewer vocational students (Tuition totaling $35,000) than planned for allows the town’s ‘educational’ costs to be balanced within the total budget as set forth by the finance committee at the annual town meeting.
Therefore the increase is not unrealistic but rather a matter of priorities and the school committee is not expecting the town to approve the total assessment at this time, rather the amount required if we get mitigation funding.

  1. The Finance Committee met with the School Committee in April and agreed to an additional $100,000 payment (6.7% increase) for this year, on top of the $1,484,000 we already pay. While total town tax increases are capped at 2.5% per year.
    1. The town has not regularly taxed to our levy limit and left nearly $50,000 on the table in FY’14,
    2. The percent of the town budget on education has been decreasing and, as the school budget has decreased, the increase in taxes is due to town spending,

  1. David Hopson thinks that instead of paying $17,000 for our over budget winter Sand and Salt expenses, and $58,000 to make a mandatory  debt payment on a loan­ using free cash (approved by Dept. of Revenue last year), we should give it to the school, on top of the $100,000 we already budgeted .
    1. Dr. Hopson never said or indicated that and this statement is unprofessional and improper. Dr. Hopson  simply pointed out that the town is using money (almost $120,000) to cover over-expended line items for several areas and to pay for ‘missed’ payments (the debt);
      1. The finance committee gave its approval to using unexpended monies raised for education to offset town over expenditures rather than set that aside for future changes in school assessments as requested by the school committee chair,
      2. Why hasn’t the town put into place simple accounting procedures like purchase orders to track ongoing expenses? Why does the finance committee under fund town department requests on a consistent basis, and yet still leave potential tax revenue that could be raised and appropriated?

  1. Apparently the School Administration is also opposed to putting the remainder of last year's free cash into our rainy day fund for our many current and future needs (building repairs, equipment replacement, road repairs, etc.). They would prefer that we should use this to pay more to the school, regardless of the town's needs ....While the School keeps revolving funds with significant balances [School Choice - $660,431; and Wrap Around- $156,479] that they are unwilling to use to reduce assessments.
    1. Despite an invitation to discuss budgetary constraints and issues with the administration, the district is instead faced with a willingness of individual(s) to put words into the mouths of others, again unprofessional and petty, while in fact:
      1. Putting free cash into stabilization and reserve funds is a good idea, but even better if the town had a comprehensive and long-term capital and maintenance plan with a reasonable funding proposal (very few people make major repairs, replace vehicles, or make capital improvements based upon current cash flow, rather they borrow (the town would bond) for these expected expenses - which also would allow for a temporary tax increase under a debt exclusion to Prop. 2 ½ ),
      2. This statement shows a continuing disregard of the district’s budgeting process and documents, as Gateway used $472,762 from revolving accounts ($74,880 was from Wrap-Around and $242,954 from School Choice) during the 2014-15 school year to offset district expenses and reduce assessments to the towns.

  1. Past years' "managed" assessments do not justify this year's ballooned increase. In part these controlled increases were a result of transferring costs to the town (Blandford school building overheads, upkeep and repairs.)
    1. Town assessments are a result of multiple variables including the percentage of students each town has, the required state minimum contribution, and the total school budget. For example, although the Gateway budget went down this year by over $400,000, some town assessments increased as little as 1%.
    2. The transfer of the elementary school to the town five years ago does not represent the total decrease in school costs, or the total increase in town operating costs.
    3. As Smitty Pignatelli indicated in a meeting this summer, it was the town’s choice to use the building for town offices rather than do something else with it.

  1. We approved last year's assessment. If they needed more last year, we were prepared to approve more. That does not justifY a 14.6% increase this year.
    1. The district budget is based upon operating needs in a given year, the district does not assess more than is needed and assessments vary greatly from year to year based upon many factors, not just the amount of the budget approved by the school committee.
    2. Again, the town used ‘unexpended’ but approved education funding to pay town expenses that were under budgeted or not controlled last year.
    3. Again, the assessment of each town does not correlate directly with the district’s budget and Blandford’s minimum contribution, set by the state, was the second largest increase in assessments for any of our towns (this is based upon ability to pay and historic underpayment of anticipated costs).
  1. School Student census continues to decrease as assessments continue to climb. (big disconnect).
    1. The school budget has decreased to account for the decrease in students but some costs are fixed and not directly tied to student numbers. In fact, the school budget is essentially the same as it was 12 years ago, despite inflation and numerous additional unfunded state mandates.
    2. To repeat again, town assessments are not just based upon the school’s budget.

  1. School employees enjoy regular pay increases above the level we can afford for our town employees. (Another example of the school's disconnect between balancing town "needs" and school "needs") . Our employee's raises are frozen while School employees enjoy their increases.
    1. The town finance committee has elected not to provide an opportunity for the citizens to increase town employee pay based upon their desire to rapidly grow stabilization and reserve accounts, based upon leaving tax revenue uncaptured, and based upon spending money, year after year, on forensic audits which to date don’t seem to have yielded any positive results, thus one would be forced to consider the priority of increasing town employee pay rather than the ability to do so.
    2. The vast majority of school employees are unionized, have state representation at the bargaining table, and can easily find jobs elsewhere if our pay scales are not competitive.

  1. Some School employee income and increases are hidden within the School budget: Cost of living, Longevity, Annuity contributions and Vacation time buy back are not listed in the budget under the salary headings for Administrators. But they are being paid.
    1. Hidden is a deceptive and misleading word when in fact all employee contracts are on line and accounting practices and rules require that these items be separated in the line item budget.
    2. All Gateway employee contracts are posted on the Gateway website and have been for some time.
    3. Finally, these so called ‘hidden’ items do not just apply to administrators.
  2. -
  1. The School is filling vacant administrative positions which are not supported by the dropping census. We talk about restructuring. Why aren't we doing something about it?
    1. The overall administrative staff has decreased by 31% in the past five years, due to ‘restructuring’ based upon a decreasing school census.
    2. The only administrative position that was filled this year was that of the assistant principal that covers three schools, is responsible for a range of reporting requirements set by the state, and meets student and staff needs daily (including the dramatic increase in time needed for state-required discipline, bullying investigations, and staff evaluations).
    3. The dropping census does not show the increased needs of our students and the legal requirements to meet said needs - again a lack of research and understanding.
  1. Approval of this large assessed increase will require CUTS in other town services and positions, or a Proposition 2 ½  override, or both.
    1. Or, putting nearly $400,000 in reserve and stabilization will require an override
    2. Again, the school committee is not expecting at this meeting that the entire assessment will be approved based upon expected mitigation funding

  1. This school assessment increase- by itself- represents an additional $275 per year for the average tax payer.
    1. The amount recommended by the finance committee and selectboard for raise and appropriate at the annual town meeting that was put aside into stabilization and reserve is almost the same as the total increase in Blandford’s school assessment and much more than the school assessment with mitigation funding.

  1. These assessments, should there be no drastic changes, will continue to increase at an unsustainable level.
    1. The historic data does not support this statement given the record of assessments, the levelness of the school budget, and the fact that educational assessments as a percentage of town expenditures continues to be much lower than the twenty year average.  The Gateway budget is nearly the same total amount as it was in FY’2003 ($16,110,459 in FY ‘03 and $16,406,639 in FY ‘16 - or a total increase of 1.84% over thirteen years.)  During that same time period (FY ‘03 to FY ‘16) the district’s State aid has been reduced by nearly $2 million ($1,934,358).

  1. The School Committee has refused to hear their own Finance Subcommittee's recommendations for implementing available financial controls ($300,000 savings).
    1. Once again we see a statement that is out of context and not relevant to the issue of town assessments with mitigation funding-- can the town commit to the amount approved overwhelmingly at its annual town meeting based upon mitigation funding? Remember that the administration also presented a budget cutting an additional $600,000 that the school committee was not willing to commit to at that time due to the potential for mitigation funding.
    2. The reality is that the savings discussed at the school committee finance subcommittee were significantly overstated and were unsustainable in terms of operations, which could be one of the reasons the school committee opted not to review this suggestion.

  1. The Blandford School Committee members have refused to look at alternatives for our students, as requested.
    1. As discussed at a selectboard meeting, the request for two school committee members to look at alternatives could not be implemented based upon written policy and state regulations, as well as the fact that Blandford’s school committee members are only part of a total school committee of 15 members.

  1. Gateway is starting to talk about a 10 year plan now. This will yield NO CHANGES for at least 2 years .... And we have no idea what changes might be proposed. Meanwhile we are drowning.
    1. The 10 year plan is not simply to save the towns’ money: that occurs each year as part of the budgeting process. Rather the 10 year plan is a continuation of an ongoing planning cycle based upon the 10 year plan developed in 2005 which has been almost fully implemented.
    2. The school already has a long-term plan for maintenance, capital, and technology.
    3. There is no guarantee that changes won’t occur for at least two years, however those changes may not be ones that significantly alter the district’s expenditures.
    4. Drowning may be over-dramatic given the turnaround in Blandford’s finances from negative free cash to both positive free cash, an ever-increasing amount of stabilization and reserve funds and not raising taxes to the amount allowed under Proposition 2 ½.

  1. The School did NOT give DESE any reason to intervene when asked for an education plan without Worthington. Gateway showed NO concern for the impact on education of our students this year - knowing full well that these huge increases for the towns would result.
    1. The school committee provided DESE with an ongoing educational plan based upon student needs that parents, students, and graduates have supported.
    2. Yes, if the towns are forced to raise the entire assessed amount without mitigation funding this would be a significant increase - although still substantially less than if the assessments had consistently increased at 2 ½ percent per year - and will still be a significantly lower percentage of the town’s total expenditures than the twenty year average (54% vs. 63%). Is this just past practices of the town catching up with reality in terms of funding education?
  1. The School Committee failed to even meet after the budget was defeated in May/June by 4 towns to"...Reconsider, amend and resubmit a budget on the basis of the issues raised" per MA state law (G.L. c. 71, section 16B). The budget we are considering on Sept. 10th has not been reconsidered by the committee.
    1. The committee did not have the quorum necessary for the special school committee scheduled to adopt a new budget.
    2. Just as in the past when the school committee has been unable to reach a quorum, or the necessary vote to change the budget, that failure to act within the legal time frame moves the existing budget forward for reconsideration by the towns.

  1. Voting for this warrant article would be approving the school's FaiIure to Respond to Change when change is required.
    1. Given the fact that this statement is so broad and doesn’t provide reference to a warrant article and that the warrant articles were posted with no funding amounts, including the required assessment amount as determined by the district treasurer under MGL Chapter 71, section 16 B, it’s difficult to respond to this inflammatory statement which has little to no basis in fact when the totality of the issue is examined including the dramatic changes in district configuration undertaken 5 years ago, the reduction in staff (particularly administrative) and a budget that has remained essentially flat since FY’2003.

  1. The Blandford Town Selectboard recommends - NO

  1. The Blandford Town Finance Committee recommends- NO

Original Document is found below: