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Terry Cowgill
Berkshire Hills Regional School District officials present the proposed fiscal year 2020 budget at a Feb. 28 meeting. From left: Business Administrator Sharon Harrison; Superintendent Peter Dillon; and School Committee members Steve Bannon, Andy Potter, Jason St. Peter and Sean Stephen.

For once, little opposition to proposed Berkshire Hills spending package

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By Friday, Mar 1, 2019 News 5

Great Barrington — For the first time in a while, the Berkshire Hills Regional School District’s proposed budget is largely controversy-free.

The rate of increase is, by most accounts, reasonable and Great Barrington isn’t getting socked by a steep rise in its share of funding the district’s operations. Furthermore, there were no proposed programmatic cuts, which probably explained why only half a dozen or so members of the public attended Thursday’s public hearing for the budget at Monument Valley Regional Middle School. Only two of them spoke.

The proposed net operating and capital budgets (minus tuition income from out-of-district students) will rise by 4.21 percent to almost to $26.2 million. The proposed gross capital budget is a little more than $2.2 million, or a rise of 4.93 percent. The combined figure is approximately $28.4 million, a rise of 4.26 percent.

Click here to see the full spending proposal for fiscal year 2020.

Best of all for Great Barrington taxpayers, the town’s rise in its share of the budget is actually lower than the rate of the budget increase itself. That hasn’t happened in quite awhile. This time it is West Stockbridge getting hit with a large increase. See below:

Ironically, it will actually cost a lot of money to keep the overall increases down. In order to limit the operating budget increase to 4.21 percent, the school committee had to spend $840,000 from a reserve fund known as excess and deficiency. That will leave about $500,000 in E&D.

Former Monument Mountain Regional High School athletic director Paul Gibbons argued Feb. 28 for a smaller increase in the proposed budget. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Great Barrington resident and retired Monument Mountain Regional High School athletic director Paul Gibbons asked the committee why it couldn’t get the increase down to, say, 3 percent.

Committee Chairman Steve Bannon said the finance subcommittee did not recommend spending more from E&D and the only way to achieve further savings would be through cuts in programming, which typically means the elimination of staff positions.

“The reason I say 3 percent is my goal is looking long-term … towards the future when we have to do something with the school up on the hill,” Gibbons said, referring to ongoing attempts to rebuild the high school.

Gibbons is a member of Monument Next Steps, the panel that will present a plan to the school committee this spring for the rebuilding of the aging high school.

Superintendent Peter Dillon also reminded Gibbons that bonds issued for the $29 million construction of the regional elementary schools are scheduled to be paid off in 2023. So if the debt for the two schools is retired at about the same time that the new debt is assumed for the Monument project, it would blunt the effect of the tax increases necessary to finance it.

See video of the discussion at Thursday’s budget hearing:

Stockbridge Finance Committee Chairman Jay Bikofsky thanked the school committee “for all your efforts, for your diligence and your dedication to the education of our children.”

Jay Bikofsky, who chairs the Stockbridge Finance Committee, thanked the regional school committee at a Feb. 28 meeting for its work. Photo: Terry Cowgill

School committee members all praised the budgeting process, led by the finance subcommittee, and its improvement over the years.

“I think it’s a good budget,” said Rich Dohoney of Great Barrington, who chairs the subcommittee. “The preparation and presentation from the administration is literally becoming a model for other places.”

The school committee will formally vote to approve the budget Thursday, March 7, at 7 p.m. at Monument Valley Regional Middle School.

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5 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Helen says:

    It’s a gimmick.
    They are keeping the increase down by spending from their (our) savings account. That isn’t really saving taxpayers any money, it’s just borrowing from future taxpayers who won’t have the reserve when it’s needed to pay for a new or renovated high school.

  2. Steve Farina says:

    Is it just me, or do the budget increases in this town (school and town budgets) keep increasing at rates that far exceed the pay increases that most of the taxpayers receive each year?
    When was the last time the average pay raise was over 4%?


    From this article:
    “In the United States, an average 3 percent pay increase is predicted by Korn Ferry, the same as for 2017. Adjusted for the expected 2 percent inflation rate in 2018, however, the real wage increase is 1 percent—down from last year’s 1.9 percent.”

    The voters who show up at the Annual Town Meeting will have the choice to either approve this budget, and condone the ongoing increases, or reject the budget and send the message that the ongoing cost increases need to stop being above average. The taxpayer is not a bottomless pit of funding availability.
    Capping at 3% seems to make fiscal sense this year.

  3. Jim Balfanz says:

    I don’t know what the actual income from “Choice” and “Tuition In” students are, but suspect those costs do not cover the actual cost of educating them. There are a total of 1,219 students in the school district.
    GB – 664
    SB – 116
    WS – 123
    Choice – 227
    Tuition In – 89
    Proposed percent assessment for FY 20:
    GB – 73.5327 %
    SB – 12.8461 %
    WS – 13.6213 %
    Tot – 100 %
    Bottom line: The three towns are paying far more that what they should be for the Choice and Tuition In Students, in my opinion.
    If broken down by the actual cost per town/category the following would be the percent cost per town/category:
    GB – 54.5 %
    SB – 9.5 %
    WS – 10.1 %
    Choice – 18.6 %
    Tuition – 7.3%
    Apparently the three towns are funding a great deal of the EXTRA cost of educating other town’s children.
    I believe the shortfall is due to the fact that our legislature has not done much, if anything to provide better reimbursement to our towns to cover the additional costs…. Just a hunch…

    1. Carl Stewart says:

      I must confess to considerable surprise that I find myself agreeing…in significant part…with Jim Balfanz.

      Regarding school choice: By law, Massachusetts provides that students have the right to attend school anywhere within the state. There is an exception in that individual school districts, by vote of the school committee, can opt out of school choice. The law also provides that the “receiving” district is reimbursed 75% of their actual cost of educating a student, but there is a very big but to this; the statutory “cap” to this reimbursement is currently set at $5,000. So, if the cost of educating a student in the district is $16,000, instead of 75%, which would be $12,000, the receiving district gets only $5,000…a seeming shortfall of $11,000. (The exception to this rule is that for special education students, the receiving district gets 100% of the district’s actual cost.) Does this difference between $5,000 and the actual per student cost represent the actual shortfall to the district?
      For reasons beyond the scope of this comment, the answer is “no.” Ask the school district’s business administrator to explain this at Annual Town Meeting.

      The Berkshire Hills Regional School District has the greatest number of choice -in and tuition students in the county and one of the highest in the entire state on a percentage basis. There are several plausible explanations for this, but one should not discount the possibility that with only 900 in-district students, Berkshire Hills believes that in order for it to remain “viable” as a district, it needs a larger student body.

      The cost of educating public school students in the Commonwealth has increased dramatically over the past twenty years. In 1995, the per student cost was under $5,000. According to records maintained by DESE (the State’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) the per student cost in Berkshire Hills in 2008, was $14,200; in 2017 (the last year for which complete records are available) it was $19,400, an increase in only 9 years of nearly 40%. Further exacerbating the steep increase in the cost of education is the refusal by the state to adequately fund public education.

      Are there answers to the problems posed by rapidly increasing education costs and pretty significant declines in student population, particularly in the more rural districts of the state, e.g., the Berkshires? Two quite obvious ones are; 1. The Massachusetts legislature (and the Governor) recognizing that education is a very high priority and needs to be adequately funded; and 2. The combining of small districts, either by merger, consolidation, regionalization, or some means of sharing services and thereby hopefully reducing costs.

  4. Jim Balfanz says:

    With the proposed budget for FY-2020 at $22,703,373 and with 1,219 total students the per student cost comes to $18,635. Our three towns are having to cover a large percentage of the total cost for the Choice and Tuition In students…

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