The campus of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District. Photo courtesy BHRSD.

Berkshire Hills approves $32 million spending plan, adds communications position

Vice chair Rich Dohoney proposed to use $50,000 for the new position of community engagement specialist. HIs motion passed 7-2, with only Bill Fields and Sean Stephen dissenting.

STOCKBRIDGE — The Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee last week approved a gross operating budget totaling nearly $32 million for fiscal year 2023, but not before one committee member proposed a last-minute amendment to create a new position.

The budget as proposed in December featured a 4.58-percent increase over last year. That in itself wasn’t terribly controversial. The assessments to the three member towns also rose. Great Barrington, by far the largest of the three towns, saw an increase of 3.59 percent and West Stockbridge’s contribution rose by 4.3 percent.

The entrance to Muddy Brook Elementary School, with Du Bois Middle School and Monument Mountain in the background. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Stockbridge’s assessment, however, was projected to rise by 14.59 percent, largely because the number of students from the town has increased. Click here to see the budget package and here to see the PowerPoint presentation)

At the suggestion of school committee member Jason St. Peter, the committee voted unanimously to spend $200,000 from a reserve account, known as “excess and deficiency,” to bring the increase in Stockbridge’s assessment down to 12.79 percent.

St. Peter had inquired as to the feasibility of getting Stockbridge’s increase down below 10 percent but that would have required a reduction of some $1.1 million, which St. Peter acknowledged was likely “unattainable.”

See video below of the February 17 Berkshire Hills School Committee meeting. The budget discussion begins at 14:00:

As is often the case, the main drivers of the budget increase were contracted salaries and benefits, which comprised a total of nearly 63 percent of the increases, followed by transportation at just under 17 percent. The spending plan included 4-percent raises for administrators.

The proposed gross capital budget, which includes debt service for the construction of the middle and elementary schools, is nearly $2.1 million. The capital budget has remained stable over the years and will decrease dramatically next year, when the construction bonds are paid off for the W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School and Muddy Brook Elementary School.

Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee member Rich Dohoney of Great Barrington. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Vice chair Rich Dohoney of Great Barrington, who was acting as chair in the absence of Steve Bannon, first proposed a total of $15,000 for uniforms and equipment for the athletic programs. Those amendments passed unanimously.

But Dohoney also proposed to use an additional $50,000 for the new position of community engagement specialist — a position Dohoney said he had previously advocated for in his capacity as chair of the finance subcommittee, though he did not yet have a job description when he made the motion for the amendment.

“This is a position that I’ve talked about in many forms and many different times,” said Dohoney, who characterized the message and stories of the district and its stakeholders as “powerful” and that a communications specialist would be able to “amplify that.”

“It’s also an opportunity to free [administrators] up from things that can be very time consuming, like being at committee meetings, updating websites, editing and publishing letters to parents, things like that,” Dohoney explained.

“We can all acknowledge that communications is an area that needs improvement,” added Kristi Farina, principal of Monument Mountain Regional High School.

Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon. Photo: David Scribner

Superintendent Peter Dillon said he himself spends a lot of time on communications and that the new positions could free up some of his time to work on other more valuable tasks, especially given the likelihood that the district will mount another attempt at gathering public support for the reconstruction of the high school.

“We are a large organization with a $30-million-plus budget and other organizations with budgets like that invest in this position,” Dillon said. “We have individuals working on this on top of their responsibilities, and I very much appreciate them … but getting more help would be valuable.”

Dohoney is a deputy district attorney in the Berkshire District Attorney’s office in Pittsfield. Though Dohoney did not address the subject at last week’s school committee meeting, the Berkshire DA’s office, which is a fraction of the size of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, has more than 50 employees and, as of fiscal year 2020, had an annual budget of less than $5 million, about one-sixth the size of the school district’s. The DA’s office has a full-time communications officer, former journalist Andy McKeever.

School Committee members Sean Stephen, left, and Bill Fields, right. File photo: Terry Cowgill

Dohoney emphasized that he was not looking to hire “a high-paid spokesperson,” but rather a support person who could handle communications chores and help with messaging, the lack of which Dohoney blamed on some of the district’s past failures. But that did not satisfy school committee member Bill Fields, a Great Barrington resident who retired in 2009 after teaching history at Monument for 40 years. Fields said the committee would soon need to hire a consultant for the Monument renovation effort.

“That would be my priority rather than this position. I’d like to see a detailed job description,” Fields said, referring to Dohoney’s proposal. “I’d also like to see how many other regional school districts have a PR person because that’s what this is. This is a PR position, no matter how you cut it.” Fields suggested assigning the communications functions to student interns instead.

Dohoney’s motion passed 7-2, with only Fields and Sean Stephen of Stockbridge dissenting. Click here to view the revised assessments and E&D numbers provided to The Edge later by Berkshire Hills business administrator Sharon Harrison. The district’s budget will be approved or rejected by taxpayers at the annual town meetings of the three member towns this spring.