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Culture Shock: $25 million Berkshire Hills budget envisions cuts to arts, music programs

In order to avoid too big an increase to taxpayers, the school committee has to cut between $400,000 to $600,000 this year. Still, Great Barrington will see an almost 7 percent increase, Stockbridge will see a 9 percent increase, and West Stockbridge, a 3 percent increase.

Stockbridge — It’s school budget season again for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, and in a climate of rising expenses and less state money, the district is again proposing art and music program cuts that have already galvanized the community ahead of Thursday (February 25) night’s public hearing at Monument Valley Regional Middle School in Great Barrington.

During a preliminary meeting at its Stockbridge offices Tuesday night (February 23), The district and School Committee Tuesday night (February 23) presented its $25 million proposed budget — with $20.5 million of that total to be assessed from member towns Great Barrington, Stockbridge, and West Stockbridge. Superintendent Peter Dillon explained that in order to keep healthy school programming and necessary services while avoiding too big an increase to taxpayers, the school committee has to cut between $400,000 to $600,000 this year. Dillon and the committee’s finance sub-committee, he said, had to do the gnarly and unpopular surgery on the budget, with the guidance of school principal.

Great Barrington Selectboard members Ed Abrahams, left, and Dan Bailly, right, flank Monument Mountain art teacher, Neel Webber.
Great Barrington Selectboard members Ed Abrahams, left, and Dan Bailly, right, flank Monument Mountain art teacher, Neel Webber. Photo: Heather Bellow

“On a personal level I don’t like this,” Dillon said. “Guess whose daughter is holding the high school marching band banner? Mine.” His son, he said, was also in the music program at Monument Mountain Regional High School, where long-time and beloved band teacher Jeff Stevens will not be replaced once he retires, if the committee votes yes on this proposed budget. Stevens’ part-time position at the middle school is also on the chopping block. One art position at the high school will also go to part-time, and one Muddy Brook Elementary School teacher position will be eliminated through retirement.

“We think we can do the same [music] programming,” Dillon said. “We met with the music teachers…are in ongoing conversations with them. I would be less comfortable making this recommendation around our music program if I wasn’t entirely confident that the folks in those roles can step up.”

Dillon said Monument was known for it’s “outstanding” music program, and has more music classes with smaller enrollments than most other schools. “We have a nice tradition of sending kids to Berklee [College of Music] and Oberlin [Conservatory] and other great music programs.”

Other cuts include eliminating a paraprofessional at the high school who was assigned to a student who is graduating, and supplies at both the high and middle schools.

“Were you swimming in supplies last year,” asked Great Barrington selectboard member Ed Abrahams. “What are you asking them to do without?” Dillon explained that supplies and expenses were looked at more closely to arrive at some cuts here.

There are some savings to be had, but not enough the district thinks will keep taxpayers happy without finding savings somewhere else. District Business Manager Sharon Harrison said about $150,000 will be saved by a new health insurance plan, and around $70,000 from the switch to solar energy from a new solar farm in Housatonic.

Berkshire Hills Business Administrator Sharon Harrison explains the numbers. Photo: Heather Bellow
Berkshire Hills Business Administrator Sharon Harrison explains the numbers. Photo: Heather Bellow

Harrison also said the district will take $100,000 from the E & D (Excess and Deficiency) “rainy day fund” to lessen the blow, which both Abrahams and committee chair Steve Bannon said was risky.

“You have a barebones budget and a 50-year-old school,” Abrahams said. “What miracle is coming down the road?”

“If something happened at the [high] school, we’d have to borrow,” Bannon said.

“Our consultant doesn’t like this decision,” Harrison said of this dip into the safety fund. “But it’s important to work against the increase to the towns.”

And that increase continues ever upward. This year Great Barrington will see an almost 7 percent increase, paying $939,000 more than it did last year. Stockbridge will see a 9 percent increase, and West Stockbridge, a 3 percent increase.

Great Barrington pays 52 percent of the budget, Harrison noted, because it has more students in the schools. It’s an old pie division that has caused outrage, and a political dust up when two attempts to renovate 50-year old Monument High were rejected by Great Barrington voters, mostly over this issue. A committee is working to find a solution between the three towns.

School officials say the high school needs about $11 million in repairs that will not receive the state money a full renovation would have entitled it to. The state was to pay almost half of the $52 million renovation bill. Over the coming years, more capital costs for these repairs — that can’t wait for renovation down the road — will be included in school budgets.

Harrison explained why costs keep going up. Salary and benefits make up 75 percent of expenses, and the cost of insurance and other people-related expenses keep increasing. “That’s what we’re paying for is people,” she said. That number is $19 million in this budget.

The state pays about 10 percent of what it takes to run the district, she said, but in recent years, it gives less and less. She said she looked back to 2003, and found the district had received $600,000 less since then. “That’s part of our problem,” she said.

“A lot of this increase is due to that change in revenue from loss of choice and tuition,” Harrison added, referring to the school choice and tuition programs that allow students from other districts to attend Berkshire Hills. With school choice, the district receives $5,000 per student, a state mandated amount. This has led to public outcry in Great Barrington over having to shoulder the bulk of paying the remainder of the roughly $16,000 per student cost at Berkshire Hills, and led the district to tighten up its choice policy.

School Committee members, from left, Steve Bannon, Bill Fields and Rich Dohoney. Photo: Heather Bellow
School Committee members, from left, Steve Bannon, Bill Fields and Rich Dohoney. Photo: Heather Bellow

But this road cuts both ways. The district also loses $5,000 per student when its students go elsewhere, and the district began to rely on the significant income from out-of-district students filling empty seats.

“It’s kind of a double edged sword,” Harrison said of a $106,000 loss. She also said tuition, in which students in districts without middle and high schools attend with tuition payments from sending districts, “is down even though we negotiated [higher tuition rates]. Enrollment was down and they are sending us fewer students.”

Harrison also noted that food service expenses are “a little bit higher” this year because the “community is asking for a healthier non-commodity food.”

Harrison said she would begin tracking every bus route to see if savings can be found in transportation, though several years ago school transportation consultant said the district is efficient in this regard.

Then there is $2 million in capital expenses folded into this total proposed budget, the bulk of which is continued interest and principal on debt for the construction of the elementary and middle schools. It also includes repair expenses for all three buildings, including interest and principal to borrow $275,000 to repair the track and tennis courts at the high school, and to replace doors there to improve security.

The district, Dillon said, is on a path to “reimagine education,” since the “trajectory where every year our budget it going to go up” can’t continue forever. He said, among other things, it will consider breaking the four high school learning tracks down, possibly into two or three, and look into more semesters for high school students to go out into the world of internships, thereby reducing staff.

The committee is likely bracing itself for an emotional community pushback over the cuts Thursday night, much like at last year’s hearing, when the committee relented and rescinded its cut to the art program.

Great Barrington finance committee member Leigh Davis asked the committee if these cuts “were the end of the line,” or if the committee could keep the teaching positions in response to outcry.

“The committee can increase the [town] assessments or ask the superintendent to come back with other options,” Bannon said. “It becomes very sticky very fast when we do that, but those are our choices.”

“People wouldn’t make these decisions if they didn’t think it was workable or would hurt kids,” said committee member Richard Dohoney, who is also on the finance sub committee, and said he has a child in the music program. He said he is “confident” that while there will be some changes, “it won’t hurt kids.”

Great Barrington selectboard member Dan Bailly asked whether cuts to staff and administration had been considered. Dillon said the schools and district are functioning at a bare bones level as well, and that changes to education have made it hard to function with less. Dillon is currently considering sharing his role with another district to generate more money, and is actively working to share other school services with nearby districts.

“There’s information out there that we’re administratively top heavy,” Dillon said. “But that’s not true here.”

The school committee will hold its budget hearing in the auditorium at Monument Valley Regional Middle School on Thursday, February 25 at 7 p.m.

To see the BHRSD FY17 school budget, click here.

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