Berkshire Hills school panel adopts 2018 budget; reserves tapped to reduce tax increases
Great Barrington — In some ways, it was less of a struggle this year than in the past. But it still came at the cost of considerable debate about what to cut and what to keep — and at the eleventh hour, how to spend what was kept. In the end, however, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee, meeting in the Monument Valley Regional Middle School cafeteria Thursday (March 9) endorsed a combined operating and capital budget that, at $26.4 million, was $100,000 slimmer than the spending plan proposed earlier this year, but still 4.5 percent higher than last year. (See budget below.)
The committee’s approval did not occur without last-minute drama, however. The proposed cut of a position in the occupational therapy department and another in the arts program, as well as whether to direct some of the savings into student activity accounts, prompted quick opposition. The notion of cutting an art teacher at Monument Mountain Regional High School was quickly dropped.
Further, a proposal to reduce the staff of occupational therapists was met with incredulity. Last week, the district’s Finance Subcommittee had suggested eliminating a full-time occupational therapy assistant while making the .8 professional occupational therapist full-time, part of an attempt to find additional savings of $100,000. But no one had told the occupation therapist, Pam Hassett, about the cut, which would result in a decrease of slightly more than $25,000.
Since few people attended the public hearing on the budget the previous week, Chairman Steve Bannon allowed public comment before the committee discussed and voted on the budget.
The only speaker was Hassett, who expressed her belief that much of the school community was unaware of what her department does on a daily basis.
“Our interventions and our support for students go unnoticed by those not directly involved,” Hassett told the committee. “We have a caseload that is directed by IEPs and that contract is binding.” IEPs are individual education plans — academic and support roadmaps for individual students prepared by certified professional staff.
Hassett said a single evaluation can typically take up to four hours to complete. Another crucial element of her department’s charge is spending time in the classrooms, and practicing what she called “preventive intervention.”
“We can serve more students that way,” Hassett explained.
It didn’t take much convincing to restore the occupational therapy assistant position. Great Barrington School Committee representative Diane Singer moved to retain the position, as fellow member Bill Fields, also of Great Barrington, suggested it be funded by spending an additional $25,000 from the excess and deficiency (E&D) fund, a district reserve account.
It’s a relatively painless way to pay for the restoration but it further depletes the E&D account. The committee had already planned to spend about $310,000 from it. The additional $25,000 expenditure will leave only $647,801 in the reserve account. Currently, there is almost $1 million. Last year, only $125,000 was used out of E&D.
Member Rich Dohoney protested the idea of “directly funding operating expenses out of E&D.” But the motion from Singer and Fields passed overwhelmingly over his objections. And eventually, the entire spending plan was adopted unanimously.
There are several factors driving up costs, Business Administrator Sharon Harrison explained: choice-in revenue is down by more than $193,000; state aid in the form of Chapter 70 reimbursements for transportation has remained almost flat, even as a new bus contract with Massini of Sheffield will see increases of 37 percent over the first two years of the pact.
The initial increase in employee health insurance premiums from Berkshire Health Group was 9.3 percent, a rise that has become typical in the last decade. But the district has switched to so-called deductible-only plans, reducing the premium increases to 2.19 percent.
Interesting facts in the budget presentation:
- By far the largest single item in the budget proposal is employee salaries and benefits, which comprise more than 76 percent of the total. The second smallest is student activities and athletics at 0.45 percent.
- Debt service payments on Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School and Monument Valley Regional Middle School total $1.8 million per year. The bonds issued to complete the $29 million project are scheduled be paid off in seven years.
- More than 75 percent of the district’s revenues come directly from assessments to member towns, which are paid with property taxes.
- Out-of-district placements for students with special needs total almost $1 million, accounting for more than 41 percent of the special education and student services budget.
- The total cost of the providing health insurance to current and retired Berkshire Hills employees is almost $1.9 million, or more than 65 percent of what is known as the district-wide budget line.
- Contrary to what many district critics have said, Great Barrington alone accounts for 54.21 percent of the district’s budgeted revenue but the town has 72 percent of the in-district enrollment, or 53.51 percent of total enrollment, including choice-in students and others from outside the district.
- The spending plan calls for an increase in Great Barrington’s assessment of almost 6 percent. Stockbridge will see an increase of 1.16 percent, while West Stockbridge will enjoy a decrease of 4.58 percent. District officials have said that Great Barrington’s increase is mostly due to enrollment increases in the town this year.
All three member towns will hold annual town meetings this spring in which they must approve or reject the Berkshire Hills budget. In order for the budget to pass, two of three towns must adopt it. Last year, Great Barrington rejected it but later passed it. Stockbridge and West Stockbridge passed it on the first try.