Another side of the story

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By Monday, May 12 Viewpoints  4 Comments

After reading The Berkshire Edge the last two weeks, I appreciate the writers who unequivocally support the Berkshire Hills Regional School District (BHRSD). They are entitled to their views. But it prompts me to suggest that there are other valid ways of looking at what is a very complex issue.

There are many in Great Barrington who are looking for honorable ways to save money. They are motivated not by any desire to provoke a crisis in education; nor by a mean-spirited disregard for the hard work of teachers, or administrators, for that matter; and certainly not to deny any of our young people the best possible education. They are, though, concerned that decades, and I mean decades, of saying and voting yes to all kinds of projects has contributed to an ever-increasing pressure on the taxpayers, making it harder and harder for those on fixed incomes, those without high income jobs to afford to live here. A friend of mine pays $6,000 a year in real estate taxes and is contemplating a move to Lee. Another friend, a most loyal supporter of our film festival, can no longer afford her all-access film pass. Real people. Real stories.

One voter suggested an amendment to the Great Barrington share of the BHRSD Fiscal 2015 school budget, proposing that we reduce the proposed $12,613,163 by 4.65 percent to get back to what it was last year. Some voters thought that was a reasonable request. Last year, our children went to elementary school, to middle school, and to high school. The schools were open and teachers taught and children learned.

Heather Bellow’s very well-written and always enjoyable first-person account of Town Meeting made the point that contemplating any change to the 2015 school budget was … well: “We are actually entertaining this cut? Oh, my God! Help! This can’t be serious!”

This can, of course, be traced back to Superintendent Dillon’s response to the amendment: level funding the school budget would result in the loss of ten teachers, perhaps the suspension of the second grade.

But this was not what those concerned about the school budget were hoping for, or intended.

There is a recurring problem at work here. We’re often given material to review, like the nineteen pages of changes in the zoning by-laws we were asked to read, then support this year. But we’re never given a line-item budget for the millions of dollars we’re asked to vote on for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.

The Great Barrington Town Budget is a model of transparency. I now know the Board of Health needs $1,875 for beach testing and the Council on Aging intends to spend $2,000 on office supplies this coming year. I only wish I could see similar detail about the multi-million school budget. This information might be available to those who attend School Committee meetings but the many hundreds of voters who don’t attend these meetings, and can’t seem to find detailed coverage in the local press, nevertheless deserve to see a line-item budget before they vote.

Just for the record, I have tried several times with the help of Google to find the complete budget online. Maybe a more adept researcher can find it on the BHRSD website, but I can’t.

Superintendent Dillon seems a fine and honorable man. It’s clear he takes his mission to heart and I don’t envy the position he is in, asking time and again for financial support. But here in The Best Small Town in America, we’ve more than once been told one thing and seen another thing happen. We’ve seen an estimate of $300,000 for planning and designing Main Street Redevelopment magically morph into more than a million. We were told that selling the old firehouse was a great deal, only to learn after we voted that we’ll actually be renting space in that same building for several years.

So I don’t know what’s rhetoric and what’s reality. Ten teaching jobs? Just because we might give the schools the exact same amount of money we gave them last year.

Superintendent Dillon prevailed, with the help of School Committee member Richard Dohoney and Finance Committee member Leigh Davis, who both made impassioned pleas not to abandon our teachers or children, and Town Meeting passed the half million dollar increase.

The Edge celebrated the victory, contrasting the “more measured tone” of approval of the school budget with the “paroxysm of resentment” that marked the defeat of the $56 million dollar high school renovation project.

But might there not be another, more measured analysis to explain the decision of Great Barrington voters to overwhelmingly oppose a $56 million renovation project for Monument Mountain High School?

A cursory look at the project with its indoor greenhouse and $4 million fee for Symmes, Maini & McKee Associates for architectural services, and estimates of between $238 and $348 a square foot might serve as an incentive for some critical analysis. “Paroxysm of resentment” hardly does justice to those who were motivated to see how the project could be reconfigured to prioritize what was absolutely necessary while cutting back on what might be merely discretionary. And even the November 2013 letter of BHRSD outlining the decision to proceed with the project offered a less expensive, base repair option of $42 million to cover renovations without expansion. Clearly, there are ways to save money while saving Monument Mountain High School.

Perhaps one man’s “paroxysm” is another man’s “prudence.” And one man’s idea of “resentment” might be another man’s notion of “fiscal responsibility.”

School Committee Member Rich Dohoney was quoted suggesting voters were voting “on firing of teachers.” Leigh Davis was quoted telling voters: “We have our teachers dependent upon what we decide here, and students depending on it, too, wanting to know whether their teachers will be back next year.”

Good theater, dynamic news coverage but less than complete analysis. Why doesn’t The Edge publish the complete school budget, and offer several contrasting analyses? Why doesn’t The Edge ask local building contractors and developers to analyze in detail the proposed $54 million Monument Mountain renovation? Why, for example, does a 16-year-old roof need repair?

It is time to move beyond the stark good-bad, do you care about the kids simplifications we’ve experienced so many times in the past when it’s time to talk about education here in The Best Small Town in America. Leigh Davis suggested “This vote on the school budget is about an investment in the future, not a witch hunt.”

I understand how easy it is to imagine that those voters who don’t say yes, who don’t vote yes, just don’t care about teachers. To imagine that they don’t care about kids.

It’s not hard to confuse asking tough questions, wanting to question official orthodoxy and a determination to dig deeper with negativity. Maybe it’s even easy to imagine that those who are trying to find less expensive and more efficient ways to do things are only hunting witches.

But even a quick look at how school construction happens here in The Commonwealth, a cursory examination of how the Massachusetts School Building Authority does business would leave most sensible men and women with a list of questions.

So maybe it’s time for more facts and more figures and less flamboyant rhetoric.

And how about gracefully granting everyone the right to care about kids, to treasure education, while we all try our best to make life bearable for those with less.


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4 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Rikke Borge says:

    Well said!

  2. Alice Radosh says:

    I am not a Berkshire resident, but your well written stories apply to so many small towns…. and I like the variety: from school boards to chimney swifts and everything in between. Come here and start a Woodstock, NY Edge!

  3. Ed Abrahams says:

    A big part of the problem, as you state, is that when voters vote, it is Yes or No time. That forces the voters into For and Against schools, which as you said, isn’t at all the case. I take Dr. Dillon at his word that a half million dollar cut with a month’s notice will mean laying off teachers. I also know that no one at Town Meeting wanted to eliminate the 2nd grade or the sports program or the arts. The problem isn’t school-hating voters vs. free-spending voters. The problem, as you said, is the process.

    (For the record, the half million dollar increase was a level-program budget. That means the schools ARE doing this year what they did last year, it just costs more.)

    The good news is that there is a way to find some savings but it means doing things differently at the high school. More good news is that Dr. Dillon and the school committee got the message. The bad news is that it didn’t and couldn’t have happened before Town Meeting; it will take time. Worse, any savings realized will lower the base budget, but costs will keep going up for schools as for everything else. That will slow the increase over time, but budgets will increase. Increased state aid, choice payments and transportation reimbursements are the real (and elusive) answer.

    This is not simple. Thank you, Mickey, for reminding us that we aren’t Us and Them. We are neighbors who all want to figure this out, if possible, in a way that educates our children without chasing their parents and grandparents out of town.

  4. Ed Abrahams says:

    A big part of the problem, as you state, is that when voters vote, it is Yes or No time. That forces the voters into For and Against schools, which as you said, isn’t at all the case. I take Dr. Dillon at his word that a half million dollar cut with a month’s notice will mean laying off teachers. I also know that no one at Town Meeting wanted to eliminate the 2nd grade or the sports program or the arts. The problem isn’t school-hating voters vs. free-spending voters. The problem, as you said, is the process.

    (For the record, the half million dollar increase was a level-program budget. That means the schools ARE doing this year what they did last year, it just costs more.)

    The good news is that there is a way to find some savings but it means doing things differently at the high school. More good news is that Dr. Dillon and the school committee got the message. The bad news is that it didn’t and couldn’t have happened before Town Meeting; it will take time. Worse, any savings realized will lower the base budget, but costs will keep going up for schools as for everything else. That will slow the increase over time, but budgets will increase. Increased state aid, choice payments and transportation reimbursements are the real (and elusive) answer.

    This is not simple. Thank you, Mickey, for reminding us that we aren’t Us and Them. We are neighbors who all want to figure this out, if possible, in a way that educates our children without chasing their parents and grandparents out of town.

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