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Heather Bellow
After listening to public concern about cuts to the arts and to staffing at the elementary school, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee voted 9-1 to restore funding for arts and music programs. The district's Finance Committee had urged that the programs and a 2nd grade teacher position be retained.

Bowing to public outrage, School Committee restores funding for arts, music programs

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By Friday, Mar 4, 2016 News 9

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.

Fred Clark, at right, was the only School Committee member to vote against the restoration of funding. Committee member Jason St Peter listens as Clark explains his view.

Fred Clark, at right, was the only School Committee member to vote against the restoration of funding. Committee member Jason St Peter listens as Clark explains his view.

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.

Lower School music instructor Mike Gillespie. Photo: Heather Bellow

Lower School music instructor Mike Gillespie. Photo: Heather Bellow

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.”

School Committee members Bill Fields, left, and Andy Potter. Photo: Heather Bellow

School Committee members Bill Fields, left, and Andy Potter. Photo: Heather Bellow

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.”

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9 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Michelle Loubert says:

    I need to address the outrage expressed by Mr. Fields regarding my comment on the BHRSD Finance Committee budget process. Since April 2015, the BHRSD Finance Committee met to construct the budget. I attended all but one of these meetings. At these meetings, Finance Committee members and BHRSD administration reviewed the many fine points of the budget. Many times, this administration was directed by the Finance Committee to communicate with their staff, review and analyze expenses, areas where money could be saved, and more. The administration would then report back to the Finance Committee. (The process was a bit more complicated than this but for purposes of this post, abbreviated.) This done, the BHRSD Finance Committee again reviewed and analyzed budget items, including impacts on programs, students, staff, etc. Although I was not happy with the end result (a 7 percent increase), I was witness to the process and discussions. I knew how the Administration and BHRSD Finance Committee came to the end result. It was stated at one of these meetings that minimal if any negative impact would result from reductions or not filling positions left open by retirement. For the first time in a long time, I felt comfortable with what I saw. I had trust and confidence in the process. As a matter of fact, on February 25, I defended this process and was saddened that many, many people in the audience had not been privy to discussions at the Finance Committee level (the value of taping such meetings). However, my support of the BHRSD Finance Committee process changed March 3. Although it took several months to develop the budget, on Wednesday night, in less than two hours and in one swoop, the budget was revamped, positions restored, and other budget lines reinstated. I had great concern as to why the BHRSD administration, over the course of its participation in the budget process, seemed so out of touch with their staff and the issues that arose at the February 25 public hearing. At the March 3 meeting, there seemed to be an epiphany regarding issues and problems rendering several months of budget process null and void; issues and problems that apparently only immediate restoration of reductions/cuts could address. Now, I felt betrayed by the budget process and yes, I felt the several month process (not the people) insincere and fake, not to mention, a waste of time. Was the entire finance committee budget process simply for show? I’m sorry Mr. Fields that you are upset but so am I. My family is being crushed by yearly tax increases (obviously, other families as well judging by the comment above regarding low income and free and reduced lunch families). I know many other taxpayers are upset, but how these feelings translate at annual town meeting, only time will tell. I’m also sorry I wasn’t present at the March 3 meeting to address your “outrage” personally but as I informed the Finance Committee Wednesday night, I would not be and that is why I spoke Wednesday night (I was attending a meeting/talk by Tim Gray regarding GE’s proposed dumpsites of which one is proposed for Housatonic). You see, I attend many, many meetings. Sometimes, I’m present at more meetings than the people elected to be there. But Mr. Fields–you are correct. Maybe it is time for me to run for an office, but please do not denounce citizens who speak out. Last time I checked, being an elected official isn’t required to have a voice (remember, Rockwell’s Four Freedoms). Thank you.

  2. Ed Abrahams says:

    Michelle, if “It was stated at one of these meetings that minimal if any negative impact would result from reductions or not filling positions left open by retirement'” it was stated wrong. The middle school was to cut supplies and stipends by 25%. Do you ink they were swimming in supplies last year? Do you really think they can just do more with less. Do you think the music program can offer the same program with a 20% cut in staff?

    The three principals cut where they believed it would have the least impact, but not one of them said it was no impact or even acceptable. They were each told how many dollars to cut, so they cut. That is backwards budgeting.

    One doesn’t start with an arbitrary dollar amount and see how much education can be provided for that amount. Responsible adults charged with the sacred task of educating children first decide how to provide that education, THEN they decide how much it will cost.

    The rest of us, the adults in is community, need to act like adults and pay for the education our children need. Yes it’s expensive. Yes it goes up every year just like our phone bills and food bills. But your daughter got a decent education paid for by the taxpayers and my daughters got a decent education. The current and next generation of children deserve the same.

    1. Carl Stewart says:

      Ed Abrahams states a basic and a very important truth….education is getting more and more expensive and much of the increase is beyond the control of finance, school, and other committees. To take one relatively small example; the school district is contractually committed to pay for health insurance for its staff and this cost has risen dramatically recently. There is no good local answer to this issue because if the district lowers its contribution to insurance costs, teachers and other staff will leave and go to more generous districts. We spend money on our children’s education because we recognize that a good public education is vital to our success as a community.

  3. Patrick Fennell says:

    Why hasn’t the three town agreement been changed or better yet tuition and choice numbers increased to make things fairer? Asking GB to again pay 70% of the budget just isn’t not fair. And if these teachers are so expensive why aren’t out of district towns asked to chip in more money? Or why can’t the BHRDS doesn’t get a discount, since we all know $5,300.00 per student doesn’t go very far? Again until this agreement is changed GB continues to get teh short end and the high costs. Terrible how when things get expensive the district towns get to pay more, but the choice and tuition agreements stay the same. According to the Berkshire Eagle and Record many other districts are behind the 8-ball with budgets.

    1. Bill Fields says:

      Patrick: The claim that GB pays 70% of the budget is false. If you go to page 38 of the BHRSD budget book you will see that the figure you cite is erroneous. Of total BHRSD revenue – $27,404,934(reimbursements, town assessments, choice/tuition) – GB percentage of that total is $14,463,399 or 52.82%. GB’s share of district enrollment is 682 students or 51.36%. So to continually say that GB pays 70%of the budget is flat out wrong. An individual town’s revenue must be seen as a percentage of the total revenue the district receives.

      1. Patrick Fennell says:

        Are you including the out of district students? Based on the total amount of students going to the three schools GB is picking up the majority of the freight including capital cost. When will this agreement be changed? One GB student almost equals four choice students in cost $19,864.00 to $5,300. So why isn’t tuition and choice set up as a sliding costs since the towns are?

      2. Rich Bradway says:

        To reiterate Bill’s point, of all the income / revenue that comes into the district, which includes assessments to each town, state reimbursements, tuition, and choice… Great Barrington’s assessment represents approximately 53% of said revenue. Stockbridge and West Stockbridge are each approximately 11%. When compared to enrollment, Great Barrington represents 51% of students, and both Stockbridge and West Stockbridge represent 11%.

      3. Carl Stewart says:

        Bill Fields—

        Patrick Fennell persists in beating this dead horse regardless of how many people show him that its heart has truly stopped beating. And in addition to faulty math, Mr. Fennell continues to refuse to recognize that schools do not determine the tuition reimbursement amounts. This is done by the Commonwealth for every school district and the only choice available to a school is to discontinue acceptance of “choice” students. Some districts are eager to have choice-in students but not for the revenue they generate. With student population declining in the Berkshires (and this county is not unique in that phenomenon), schools worry about offering certain programs to an ever decreasing student body. If there are only 5 high school students who want to study Latin, the cost can not be justified; if 9 students opt for Latin studies, the equation is then different.

      4. Patrick Fennell says:

        Carl right now Alford has 16 students not going to SBRSD and most are in the BHRSD the total attending public schools is 26 according to the 3013-2014 numbers. This year 354 students are going to BHRSD is from out of the district and based on say 20 students per class that comes down to a lot of teachers, aides and other staff members, the Choice and tuition costs do not cover the extra as proven by teh budget increases. The six districts in south county need to merge, it would save cost and be better for the students. Right now all the districts are cannibalizing one another to survive. It is a county problem that coninues to be ignored at the cost of hardworking taxpayers and most of all students.

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