ROCKPORT — As attendance continues to decline, budgets continue to rise and a possible override of tax-limiting Proposition 2½ on the horizon, Rockport Public Schools are trying to perfect a balancing act — cut costs while maintaining a robust and effective school environment for students.

Gloucester Public Schools are facing similar issues.

The two districts have retained the services of the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute to determine whether sharing some services would benefit their students and save some cash. Both districts are splitting the study's cost, $60,000, right down the middle. The Donahue Institute has conducted similar cost-saving studies for school districts across the Commonwealth.

The goal of the Cape Ann Study for Education, or CASE, is to examine the current costs and enrollment trends of both districts and "explore potential opportunities to share or leverage resources, where they mutually improve academic performance, student growth, scope of academic and extracurricular offerings and environment and reduce costs," Rockport School Committee Chairman Michael Kelly wrote in a prepared statement.

Both districts agreed to partake in the third-party study this past spring.  

"There are a number of issues we have in common with Rockport," said Jonathan Pope, chairman of the Gloucester School Committee. "One of them is a declining student population. It affects the ability to fund comprehensive programs. It seemed to make sense to have this discussion because we have resources that they don't and they have resources we don't." 

All options open

Initial research for the study has wrapped. In October, both school districts supplied the Donahue Institute team with enrollment data, past budgets and current projections. Within the coming weeks, researchers will interview school officials, including principals and guidance counselors, to get their takes on which services need improvements.

Despite the possibility of bringing some cost-saving options to the forefront, Rockport school representatives say merely saving money is not their primary goal. 

"We are hopeful that (savings opportunities will be presented)," Kelly said in his statement, "but those savings are secondary to improved opportunities for the students of Cape Ann."

All aspects of both school systems are being looked into and no possibility is off the table at this time.

That said, neither superintendent considers this study as a way to begin regionalizing, although that option is looked at in the study.

"If circumstances warrant the two districts together somewhere down the line, we will at least have a better understanding on what that would mean and what that would include," said Gloucester Superintendent Richard Safier. 

Potential override

Once the final CASE report is released to the public in late March, both districts will host public forums to discuss which of the cooperation recommendations are viable to pursue, if any.

"Everything right now is complete speculation," said Rockport Superintendent Rob Liebow.

Right now, Rockport Public Schools are preparing to propose a Proposition 2 1/2 override at spring's Town Meeting. The tax raise is reportedly needed to adequately fund the fiscal year 2021 school budget. The CASE study will not affect the district's need for an override, as any cooperation between the two districts will remain theoretical for the near future.

If the override passes, the owner of the median single-family home owner in Rockport, valued at $513,350, will see an annual $206.86 increase in their property taxes. 

"Without an override, our school reserves are predicted to fall to an estimated critically low level of only $105,799 ($400,000 is considered the fail-safe amount) at the end of the upcoming budget cycle next year," reads another explainer by Kelly on the district's website, "which would necessitate several hundred thousand dollars worth of cuts to both personnel and programs presently in place in our schools." 

The override, according to Kelly, will allow the district to lengthen the elementary school day to provide more instructional time, move to a later start time for older students, expand STEM offerings, add elective courses and increase foreign language instruction for younger students. Like the previous override, it is expected to cover the next five years, according to current estimates.

The last override was voted on in 2008 and put into motion in 2009. It covered the town's share of the school budget for the next five years. After a handful of breaks from the state and saving opportunities arrived over the years, the district was able to maintain the budget without an override for an additional five years. Since the beginning of that five-year grace period, however, the district made it clear to residents that another override could be around the corner. 

A public forum discussing the fiscal 2021 school budget and the need for the Proposition 2 1/2 override will be held on Wednesday, Dec. 11, at 6:30 p.m., at Rockport Public Library's Brenner Room, 17 School St.

Michael Cronin may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or mcronin@gloucestertimes.com.

Calling for an override

What: A public forum discussing Rockport Public Schools' fiscal 2021 budget and the need for the Proposition 2 1/2 override.  Wednesday, Dec. 11, at 6:30 p.m., at Rockport Public Library's Brenner Room, 17 School St.

When: Wednesday, Dec. 11, at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Brenner Room, Rockport Public Library, 17 School St.

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