Bowing to public outrage, School Committee restores funding for arts, music programs
Great Barrington — After a “challenging” school Finance Committee meeting on Wednesday (March 2) in which members scoured the budget for ways to restore most of its previous budget cuts to school programming, the Berkshire Hills Regional School District committee voted 9-1 Thursday to approve the new budget.
The $25 million net operating and capital budget was originally shaved of a full-time music teacher, a full time art and a second grade teacher, along with some supplies and stipends, but upon closer examination of the entire budget, amid widespread community distress over the cuts, the Finance Committee was able to restore the full-time music position now held by retiring Jeffrey Stevens to part time, and fully restore the art and second grade positions. Some supplies were also restored.
Residents will vote on the operating and capital budgets at each of the three Annual Town Meetings in early May. Of that $25 million total, the capital budget is $2.1 million. Great Barrington will be charged $14.5 million, a 7 percent increase from last year; Stockbridge, $3 million, a 9 percent increase; and West Stockbridge, $3 million, a 3 percent increase.
The restorations of the funding in the arts and music, plus retaining a second grade teacher, were accomplished without any additional increases in the school bill to each town by cutting from the technology budget, taking more from excess and deficiency reserves, and moving $100,000 for likely furnace repairs at Monument Mountain Regional High School out of the operating and into the capital budget. Replacement of the heating system at the high school was included in the proposed renovation that was rejected by voters in Great Barrington last year.
The cuts were conceived as a way to stabilize increasing school costs due to shrinking state revenues and population decreases, as well as the rising cost of employee benefits, and not pass the annual costs to residents –– mostly in Great Barrington, which struggles to keep property taxes down, and also faces annual increases. Recent union agreements to switch to a less expensive plan, however, will help the district save around $150,000 this year, a process committee member Richard Dohoney praised as uniquely cooperative. “They did it out of love for the district,” he told the well-attended audience.
Of the music program restoration he further said 4.6 employees here “is a workable solution,” to the previous total of 5. It was a compromise blessed by retiring teacher Stevens himself, though lower schools music teacher Mike Gillespie said while “we appreciate the opportunity to compromise, we hope to take cuts off the table completely.” He spoke passionately about the programs that Berkshire Hills is known for. “We are the best in the county,” he said, noting his concern about the trickle down effect of music cuts to the high school to the lower schools that will ultimately limit preparation for students who want to apply to colleges as music majors.
Committee member Fred Clark voted against the proposed the budget. “I love what we’re doing in this district.” But, he said, “we are in or near a financial crisis. Increases to towns are 6, 7, 8 percent — we’re doing this every year.” He further said the continued escalation will compromise a desperately needed renovation to 50-year old Monument High, after Great Barrington voters twice squashed the district’s attempts over rising assessments. “Near and dear to my heart is to renovate Monument in the coming years…at some point it’s going to become unsafe.”
Committee member Jason St. Peter said he, too, was concerned about “deplorable conditions” at the high school, and said not renovating is “kicking the can down the road.”
“We need to start spending money on the infrastructure to maximize educational benefits to kids,” he added.
Retired 40-year Monument High teacher Bill Fields, now on the Finance Committee, gave a fierce oration deriding the ways in which he said state legislators and the governor speak with forked tongues about education as they force mandates and dole out less and less every year. Like Clark, he said the need for a high school renovation is paramount, and read a letter from Monument senior Caroline Sprague in which she said the music program was a “defining feature” of the school “despite the adversity.”
He further noted that many younger Berkshire Hills students are a struggling bunch, with many requiring specialized educational programs, and a high percentage living in low-income households and receiving free or reduced lunches. He said that influenced his decision about further straining students by increasing class size, the result of cutting the 2nd grade teacher. Dohoney later added to this by noting that first graders right now were born in the “worst recession in recent history,” and during a “great drug epidemic” in the Berkshires.
Not stopping, Fields said he was “outraged” at a resident who told the Finance Committee their budget trimming process was “insincere and fake.”
“People who don’t like this,” he said, “run for office, be a voice.”
Committee member Andy Potter said it was important to note that the annual increases weren’t a result of extravagant programming but rather rising health care costs. “We’re paying the bills,” he said. “That’s not going away.” Like Fields, Potter got on his political soapbox against increasing state impoverishment of schools. “[The state] lowering the income tax rate is pushing costs down to property taxes, and we have to litigate that. It’s all over the state and the country.”
Member Kristin Piasecki said she didn’t like that “we put the community under emotional pressure over what amounted to a $30 annual [property] tax increase.”
Many on the committee, including chair Steve Bannon, Richard Bradway and Superintendent Peter Dillon said the next budget process needed to begin immediately, so that it didn’t come to desperate cuts at each new budget season.
Potter addressed this process issue as well. “The values of this committee should be represented as the budget is being developed and before it is presented.” And of the idea that somehow town assessments will go down next year? “It ain’t happening,” he said.
“It’s not about cutting,” Dillon said, “but about growing.”