Great Barrington — The chairman of the Great Barrington Finance Committee has called on voters in the three towns comprising the Berkshire Hills Regional School District to reject the proposed BHRSD budget of $23,261,000 for 2015 at their respective town meetings in May, setting up what could become a crisis in education funding with the possibility that the state would take over school district management.
Sharon Gregory made her recommendation during the April 23 “mini” town meeting at the Barrington Fire Station where an audience of 30 voters and as many town officials had packed into a meeting room to review the warrant items that will come before voters at the May 5 Annual Town Meeting in the Mahaiwe Theatre.
The session also gave the Board of Selectmen and members of the Finance Committee an opportunity to rehearse their lines for what surely will be a contentious Town Meeting as voters consider whether the district’s $12,613,163 assessment for Great Barrington – a 4.65 percent increase over last year — is simply too much.
By a 3-2 vote, the Finance Committee had already voted to send the budget back to the School Committee. The Board of Selectmen, by a 3-2 vote, subsequently took the opposite stance, persuaded that the School Committee was taking steps to address the swelling education expenditures for a diminishing number of local students. Both the Select Board and the Finance Committee have endorsed the town’s operating budget, exclusive of the school assessment.
“Great Barrington has 40 percent of the students in the high school, but pays 70 percent of the bills,” complained Finance Committee member Walter F. Atwood III. “Great Barrington shouldn’t be responsible for educating students from other towns, those 291 students are choice in or pay tuition. It costs Berkshire Hills $15,000 to educate each student; in Sheffield, it costs $9,000.”
“If the budget doesn’t pass, what happens?” retorted Select Board Chairman Sean Stanton. “The School Committee has made some really important steps, and the process takes time.”
Stanton was citing Superintendent Peter Dillon’s explanation of how the district was exploring regionalization and collaboration with neighboring districts to reduce administrative costs – one option had him assuming the role of superintendent of the Lenox School District – and negotiating new agreements with Richmond and Farmington River for higher tuition rates.
But Gregory was not convinced.
“I believe the district’s operating expenses can be reduced without affecting the curriculum,” she declared. “There can be additional sharing of personnel and facilities, plus regionalization. Even the chairman of the School Committee voted against this budget.”
She was referring to Stephen Bannon, who as a Barrington selectman was seated across the table from her.
Bannon explained he voted against his committee’s budget for two reasons: First, the committee declined to accept the reductions in school expenditures recommended by Dillon, and secondly, as a result the budget is simply too much of a burden for Barrington taxpayers.
Further, he believes that the BHRSD assessment for Great Barrington has little chance of passing at Town Meeting.
And that could create a difficult dilemma for Great Barrington, besides throwing the district’s finances into chaos.
The BHRSD budget is rejected district wide only if two towns voted against it. If Barrington voters turn the school budget down but voters in West Stockbridge and Stockbridge approve it, Bannon pointed out, the budget still passes for the district, and thus Great Barrington becomes obligated for its $12 million assessment.
“We would have to have a special town meeting to vote on the total budget again,” he said. “If we don’t have a budget by December 31, the state would run the district.”