Great Barrington — Two important but divided town panels have endorsed both the town and regional school district budgets, but important questions remain about the future of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, and about what public education in Berkshire County will look like in the decades to come.
Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon set the stage at Monday’s joint meeting of the Finance Committee and Select Board, presenting an overview of his proposed spending plan — a combined operating and capital budget of $26.4 million, an increase of 4.5 percent over last year.
Unfortunately for Great Barrington taxpayers, the proposed BHRSD budget calls for an increase in the town’s assessment of almost 6 percent, with an increase in Stockbridge of 1.16 percent and an actual decrease in West Stockbridge of 4.58 percent. The differences in assessment levels among the three member towns are mostly a reflection of their respective student enrollment numbers.
Dillon listed some of the reasons for the increases: contractual obligations for salaries and benefits of employees; rises in special education costs; and a new transportation contract with the sole bidder, Massini Bus Company of Sheffield, that will see increases of 37 percent over the first two years of the pact.
The Berkshire Hills situation brought an immediate comparison to the town’s own spending plan. The proposed town operating budget is $11.1 million, which is an increase over last year of just under 2 percent. The capital budget is almost $4.2 million. The total proposed appropriation for town operating, town capital and the school district budget is almost $32 million. The town and school spending plans will be voted on separately at the annual town meeting in May.
Finance Committee member Walter F. “Buddy” Atwood III, a former chairman of the Berkshire Hills School Committee, wanted to know why more work wasn’t being done to consolidate the schools in southern Berkshire County.
Dillon said there is work going on behind the scenes and that Berkshire Hills is actively pursuing additional opportunities for sharing of services with other districts. Last year, the Shaker Mountain School Union, a district that includes Hancock, New Ashford and Richmond, agreed to hire Dillon as a shared superintendent with Berkshire Hills. And progress is being made at the monthly meetings of the Berkshire County Education Task Force at Nessacus Middle School in Dalton, Dillon added.
“Adams-Cheshire is shutting down an elementary school this year,” Dillon said, referring to the recent decision of the Adams-Cheshire Regional School Committee to close Cheshire Elementary School in the face of rising expenses and declining enrollments.
In the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, the operations of two community elementary schools — one in Monterey and another in Egremont — have been suspended indefinitely, though legal challenges may be in the offing.
Sharon Gregory, the former chairperson of the Finance Committee wanted to know why the Farmington River Regional School District, which only serves pre-k to 6th grade, had not formally joined Berkshire Hills for purposes of educating its grade 7 through 12 students. Since Farmington River only pays a negotiated tuition of about $8,000 per student, it receives a substantial discount over the $16,000 per student cost at Berkshire Hills.
Dillon described the situation as “super-sensitive” and added that there are “competing interests” between both the sending and receiving districts. He did not elaborate. On the other hand, Dillon said there are “a bunch of kids” attending Berkshire Hills Schools from New York state who are paying the full $16,000 per year.
In response to another query, Dillon had strong words for the state’s policy on public school choice tuition between districts.
“The choice thing is just outrageous,” an exasperated Dillon complained. “I’ve been fighting that for years.”
The 1993 Education Reform Act passed by lawmakers in Boston included public school choice as one way to bridge the opportunity gap and equalize spending between rich and poor districts. Tuition paid by sending districts to receiving districts was set at about $5,500 and has remained flat ever since, even as school budgets have grown by leaps and bounds over the last 25 years.
But Selectman Dan Bailly pressed Dillon on the increases. He said he is concerned about his elderly parents and their ability to pay the increased taxes and wonders whether his own son will be able to live in the town when he grows up.
“We are one right turn away from the wheels coming off,” Bailly said. “Great Barrington’s increase is always the largest — 4, 5, 6 percent every year. It makes it hard for us to budget for roads, bridges — everything we need to keep the buses running.”
“At some point we’re going to price ourselves out of it,” added Finance Committee Chairman Tom Blauvelt.
Selectman Ed Abrahams then pressed Bailly on what items he would cut from the Berkshire Hills budget. Bailly suggested asking any administrator who makes more than $50,000 per year to take a pay cut.
“You want our kids educated by the lowest-cost people you can find?” Selectman Steve Bannon asked Bailly.
“Why not? That’s the way we fund bridges,” Atwood quipped.
Abrahams suggested “the solutions are outside this room.” It was a reference to the way property owners are taxed as spelled out in the regional school district agreement among the three member towns.
The amount the towns are assessed by the regional school district is largely determined by each town’s enrollment, rather than using a unified tax rate per $1,000 of assessed property value, as is done in regional school districts in the state of New York, for example. This arrangement is viewed in Great Barrington as unfair because the town has a disproportionate percentage of the district’s students.
But an attempt was made last year to amend the regional agreement to change how the assessments are calculated. The Berkshire Hills Regional Agreement Amendment Committee recommended — and all three towns approved — a proposal by Chip Elitzer to apply a unified tax rate to future capital projects, which could finally clear the way for passage of a renovation project for Monument Mountain Regional High School.
But there was no consensus on the RACC for applying the unified rate to the much larger operating budgets, in part because it would cause a substantial tax increase in Stockbridge.
“Chip’s research is fundamental change in how education is funded,” Select Board Chairman Sean Stanton said, adding that Elitzer has met with state lawmakers about the matter.
On the positive side, Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin told the board Great Barrington has seen substantial “new growth,” recording $37 million in new construction in the past year, resulting in permit fees totaling more than $88,000 so far this fiscal year. The new construction will generate $538,690 in new tax dollars to the town.
The proposed school budget was endorsed by the Finance Committee and the Select Board, with Atwood and Bailly dissenting. The town budget passed the Select Board unanimously but Atwood voted no in the Finance Committee vote. He wanted the town to use more of its reserves, or so-called “free cash,” to mitigate the increases for taxpayers.
The annual town meeting will be Monday, May 1, at 6 p.m. in the high school auditorium.