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HWRSD faces difficult FY16 budget season

Date: 3/5/2015

WILBRAHAM – The Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District will face a tough and time restricted fiscal year 2016 (FY16) budget season due to an anticipated state budget shortfall of more than $1.5 billion and a later announcement of available aid funds.

Superintendent of Schools M. Martin O’Shea told Reminder Publications Gov. Charlie Baker was not anticipated to release his budget until March 4. The Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee would need to approve the district’s budget by its March 10 meeting.

“The reason for [the March 10 deadline] is that we need to let the towns know what their assessments will be 45 days prior to the first Town Meeting,” he added. “April 27 is the first Town Meeting in Hampden.”

In past years, former Gov. Deval Patrick has released the state budget during the third week of January, he noted.

“We are anticipating a very challenging budget season,” O’Shea added. “We are anticipating that we will have our own shortfall and that we will have to figure out how to bring costs in line with projected revenue.”

The district is always exploring ways to maintain “the level of excellence that we’ve come to expect,” he said. The district’s goal in its budgets has always to maintain staff, he continued; however, it also has to look at staffing and programming cuts because “that’s where the costs are.”

School Committee Chair Marc Ducey described the roughly one-week timeline as “nonsensical” during the committee’s Feb. 24 meeting.

“This is just craziness,” he added. “We have virtually no information from the state other than some rumors. There’s no information to draw a budget on. We’re trying to develop a $42 million budget this year. What will it be next year? This approach that is being forced upon us needs to change.”

Ducey said the state’s later announcement creates “a spiral effect,” one of which being a potential reduction in staffing.

In other business, the district is working with the town of Wilbraham to determine a source of revenue for the proposed $3 million Soule Road Elementary School window and door reconstruction project.

The committee is still examining the possibility of delaying the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) Accelerated Repair Program by one year, O’Shea said.

The program has a reimbursement rate of 53.73 percent.

Ducey said the initial funding source for the project would have come from money from Cathedral High School property rentals and free cash. However, with the Diocese of Springfield’s announcement on Feb. 23 that a new regional Catholic high school would merge the student bodies of Cathedral and Holyoke Catholic High School, future funding would likely not be available.

“It was in some ways disappointing to hear that 2:30 [p.m.] press conference yesterday afternoon,” he added. “I don’t think we can plan on Cathedral being at the Memorial location beyond the fall of 2016. I think the town was hoping that would be the case and therefore they would have pretty much been able to pay for the window project.”

O’Shea said the plans to speak with the MSBA about delaying the Accelerated Repair Program for one-year would not happen “until we have a clear signal from the town.”

He added, “I think everyone recognizes that this is an opportunity to address an important building component at Soule Road and it’s a matter of whether or not the town can come up with a funding mechanism, given all the other priorities that are in front of them.”

The district is also considering a statement of interest (SOI) for the MSBA’s Core Program for a new regional middle school.

O’Shea said the SOI is due to the MSBA in the second week of April.

“In putting together a statement of interest, you’re merely expressing to the MSBA that you would like to address the capital needs of our middle school,” he added. “It’s not a statement or decision that we want to build a new school.”

In order for the SOI to be sent to the MSBA, the School Committee and the Board of Selectmen of Hampden and Wilbraham would need to support it, O’Shea noted.