New education funding policy a boon to Gill-Montague

  • Turners Falls High School and Great Falls Middle School. STAFF FILE PHOTO/Shelby Ashline

  • Gill-Montague Regional School District Superintendent Michael Sullivan. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/20/2020 10:37:47 PM
Modified: 2/20/2020 10:37:36 PM

MONTAGUE — After several years of reductions, the Gill-Montague Regional School District expects 2020 to 2021 to be the second year in a row that it will be expanding its services.

Because of the district’s somewhat unique demographics, Gill-Montague benefited more than most local schools from a revision to the state’s education funding policies last year.

“This really has helped us to turn things around,” said Gill-Montague Superintendent Michael Sullivan. “We (local schools) are all pinched in the same way. Gill-Montague is just able to come out of that situation sooner than the other guys are.”

Gill-Montague is now preparing its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal, currently set at roughly $23.6 million. This budget is built around an expectation that state aid will increase by half a million dollars over the current year. The new money will mostly be used to pay for nine new jobs, including restorations of two positions that had been cut in recent years, and new positions intended to improve services at the elementary level.

This will be the second year that Gill-Montague benefits from the state’s new education policies. In November, Massachusetts passed the Student Opportunity Act, which changes the state’s education funding model to better account for schools’ costs related to special education, English language learners and low-income families, among others.

Gill-Montague, like most if not all other local public school systems, had previously qualified only for “hold harmless” funding from the state. This means that the district technically did not qualify for yearly increases to its funding, but that the state would still increase its aid by the same amount year after year. In Gill-Montague’s case, this amounted to yearly increases in state aid of about $30,000.

When the new funding model went into effect for the current school year, Gill-Montague’s state aid went up by about $350,000 — a tenfold increase. The increase would have been even higher, but the state was correcting for years of hold-harmless funding, said Gill-Montague Business Director Joanne Blier.

For fiscal year 2021, Blier estimates state aid to increase by about $567,000.

All local public schools have benefited from the new funding model. But Gill-Montague, which has a relatively high number of low-income families and English language learners, made out better than most, Blier said.

“Our population here probably is most similar to Greenfield’s population,” Blier said. “Very unlike Pioneer, Mohawk, Frontier.”

The nine new jobs funded through the increase include four new teachers, four new paraprofessionals and a new counselor.

Two of those new teachers — a music teacher and a health and physical education teacher, both at the middle-high school — are restorations of positions that were lost in a string of cuts from 2014 to 2018, Sullivan said.

The seven other positions reflect needs that have especially affected the elementary schools, Sullivan said. Those are a reading teacher, a special education teacher, a counselor and four paraprofessionals. Paraprofessionals are assistants to the classroom’s main teacher. They are helpful in situations when a teacher is dividing his or her time between several small groups in the same class, Sullivan said. About half the schools in this area have paraprofessionals, he said.

“It’s a common practice, when you can afford it,” Sullivan said.

Part of the thinking behind the new hires is to improve Gill-Montague’s profile among other local school systems, Sullivan said. Although enrollment has been relatively stable in recent years, the district continues to lose students — especially at the high school level — to charter schools, to other local high schools via School Choice and, increasingly, to Franklin County Technical School, Sullivan said.

“Providing a better program is something we would want to do regardless. But that is one of the things we have in mind,” Sullivan said.

There’s also a broader strategy of responding to Franklin Tech’s recent expansions. The new health and physical education teacher, for example, will also teach a class focused on health care careers.

“What we’re trying to do, in regard to competing with the tech school, is to offer a more robust program, in terms of career preparation,” Sullivan said. “That’s going to be our entry into teaching that way.”

Gill-Montague’s budget for 2020 to 2021 is still under review by the School Committee and still subject to change. However, Blier said she does not expect any significant changes before the School Committee finalizes its budget proposal on March 10.

Reach Max Marcus at
or 413-930-4231.


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