After robust debate, town and school budgets readied for Great Barrington town meeting

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By Thursday, Mar 23 News  13 Comments
In a joint session, the Great Barrington Finance Committee and Selectboard deliberate over the 2018 town budget. Clockwise from lower right: Town Accountant Bob Patterson, Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, Finance Committee members Tom Blauvelt, Buddy Atwood, Will Curletti, Janet Lee, and Select Board members Bill Cooke, Ed Abrahams, Dan Bailly, Steve Bannon and Sean Stanton. Standing beyond the negotiating table is Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon.

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.

Sharon Gregory, former Finance Committee chair, addresses the budget session. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Sharon Gregory, former Finance Committee chair, addresses the budget session. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“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.

BHRSD Superintendent Peter Dillon addresses the the combined Great Barrington Finance Committee and Selectboard.

BHRSD Superintendent Peter Dillon addresses the the combined Great Barrington Finance Committee and Selectboard.

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.

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13 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Patrick Fennell says:

    Until the state steps in and makes the Berkshire schools consolidate the taxpayers are doomed. Business as usual has to stop and yes there are plenty of places to cut in both the town and school budget, unfortunately but a couple elected pols it will never happen. Perhaps the district name should be changed the the Titanic Regional School District and give all the taxpayers deck chairs to watch the distaster as it approaches.

    1. Pete says:

      You are so right. The entire county is in a mess due to decreasing enrollment, and population. Boston does not care about this region unfortunately. Some leadership by our state representatives is sorely needed. The select board has no power in this. A new approach is needed to match our economies and needs.

  2. Steve Farina says:

    There is a point at which consolidations cause the loss of autonomy while only pushing out the increased costs.
    Online retailers have figured out how to take advantage of Internet use and keep their capital costs down. The use of online classes for high school students would alleviate the need for the costly campus improvements, and allow for more efficient use of educators across multiple town boundaries.
    It’s time to join the 21st century , and maybe the offset savings could be used to get high speed Internet to the rural towns….maybe even have a work share program where high school juniors and seniors can participate in the infrastructure improvements and gain valuable skill and technology training

  3. Steve Farina says:

    Also, just wondering if the Superintendent’s salary is reduced in the schood budget by the amount of his “shared” usage by the other towns…

    1. Abby Pratt says:

      In order to find and retain an outstanding superintendent, BHRS must pay a salary roughly equivalent to other state regional districts. Deducting from his salary the $$ the superintendent brings in by supervising other, small districts is another way of losing a good man/woman.
      Raising the tuition paid by towns outside BHRS for their students who want to go to school in our district seems to be a good and fair way to bring in more $$.

      1. Steve Farina says:

        So he is getting paid by GB residents to perform Superintendent responsibilities for towns not part of the school district? Or is he working two jobs? And if it is two distinct jobs, then hopefully all resources, including his time and administrative support, are accounted for separately and there are distinct lines drawn around that.
        It would be terribly unfortunate for GB residents to have to pay higher taxes while any government employee double dips.

      2. Patrick Fennell says:

        South county has less than 3000 kids in public schools and right now there are at least four superintendents being paid plus staffs, having one covering all of south county would save a lot of money, then have on curriculum coordinator, one food service manager and one maintenance manager would save a great deal of money and be just as effecient. There are too many schools and not enough kids to justify all of the costs.

  4. John says:

    Vote NO. Perfect example of a government gone wild.

  5. Steve Farina says:

    Here’s an add-on idea:

    Consolidate 7th grade into the elementary school, 8th and 9th into the middle school. Online classes for 11th and 12th grades, with work programs.
    Move the Superintendent’s office into one of the three buildings and share administration staff (eliminating the cost duplication).
    Remodel a portion of the current HS building to improve sports and arts programs so there is still a place for social interaction. Remodel the remainder of the building and turn it into affordable housing – no market rate allowed. If you really want to get progressive, require financial training and job training for anyone who is accepted into the housing and have them commit to a 5 year plan to be able to afford their own marker rate housing (maybe even escrowing a portion of the rent for those who complete the requirement to use as a downpayment on their own property.

    Come on folks, step back and think Big Picture, get creative, and work together.

  6. Mark Silver says:

    The school committee, which worked on this budget for a year, recently had elections and everyone who ran was unopposed. I don’t remember seeing any of your names on the ballot, and from what I saw on cable tv, three people attended the school committee’s budget hearing.

    Now, without benefit of having shown up, you are experts on school funding.

    If the solutions were easy there wouldn’t be problems. Maybe it’s a little more complicated than it looks.

    1. Patrick Fennell says:

      This is a lefty district a conservative with good ideas can not get elected. Until the taxpayers run out of options and money liberals will continue to get elected and continue to ruin property owners lives.

    2. Steve Farina says:

      Agreed, Mark. It is a complicated process. I am not an expert on school funding, nor do I claim to be. However that does not preclude me from being able to offer opinion and ideas about the process, or suggestions for cost savings.
      Also, I did not live in any of the town’s affected by this process until midway through last year. Still, I have no desire to be on the school committe. Those who did run have obviously expressed an oposite desire, and as such they must take input from the constituencies they serve.
      I have served on boards and understand how difficult the budgeting process is. I also understand that at certain times it is prudent to step back and look at the big picture of what is going on all around us and break free from the tunnel vision that often encompasses these types of discussions.

  7. Bruce Palmer says:

    Change is difficult but oh so necessary – I salute those who are really grappling with this fiscal dilemma and most importantly coming up with creative proposals and suggestions. The status quo is not sustainable at least for working people who continue to struggle to make ends meet. Please continue to work together to bring about real and very much needed fiscal control in Great Barrington as it relates to the school district.

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James Welch, 89, of Salisbury, Conn.

Wednesday, Mar 21 - After his honorable discharge from the Coast Guard, Jim returned to Great Barrington and was employed by the New England Electric System (now National Grid), remaining there as the store's manager for 35 years and retiring in 1989.

Austerity prevails in Great Barrington budget talks

Wednesday, Mar 21 - In total, of the $222,476 in cuts Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin presented, about $190,000 was approved by the Selectboard and Finance Committee. "This is a year of real austerity.” -- Finance Committee Chairman Tom Blauvelt.

Birth announcements

Tuesday, Mar 20 - Two boys and two girls born at Fairview Hospital the weeks of March 9 -- 16, 2018.