Great Barrington — At a special town meeting, voters tonight (January 26) passed an amended Berkshire Hills Regional School District agreement, endorsed support for an education finance reform bill, and passed the creation of an affordable housing trust fund.
All three passed easily with a show of hands and little or no opposition from 175 voters.
The amendment to the regional school agreement changes the funding formula for future capital projects, like renovating or building a new high school.
This is the culmination of a year of difficult negotiations on the district’s Regional Agreement Amendment Committee (RAAC). Representatives from Stockbridge, West Stockbridge and Great Barrington, along with school committee members, were finally able to hash out something that could ease some of Great Barrington’s financial burden, since the town sends the most students to the schools, and so pays 70 percent of costs between the three towns.
It was a burden that made Great Barrington voters twice sink recent proposals to renovate a badly deteriorating Monument High, a 50-year-old school, at a time when the district’s budget continues its annual climb.
So the amendment won’t change this headcount formula, but it will give Great Barrington a break by using a measurement of a town’s wealth to determine how much it should pay for future projects.
RAAC chair and school committee member Bill Fields said this amendment “is in the best interest of the school district.” And RAAC committee members Michael Wise and Chip Elitzer both said they supported the amendment, though Elitzer said he would have liked to have seen more sweeping changes.
“We’ve taken a baby step in the right direction, but its only a baby step,” Elitzer said.
But Elitzer, struggling over the last year to make changes at the local level, has taken the matter to Boston, and voters tonight endorsed that path by approving the town’s support of a state education finance reform bill that would change this headcount apportionment method to cover the district’s costs. This bill would support using an assessed property value method, also known as a unified tax rate.
Basically, this would have every taxpayer in the school district paying a single rate for school costs.
Elitzer was outspoken on RAAC, and tried to get the committee to agree to a proposal that would do this without having to go to the state. But it was a tough sell for Stockbridge, which pays about 15 percent of district costs because it doesn’t send as many students to the schools.
Elitzer wrote in a letter to the Selectboard that a unified tax rate within a district is “standard practice in Massachusetts and explicitly mandated in many states like New York and New Jersey.”
“It is good public policy,” he added.
Elitzer told voters he has been accused of “peddling snake oil,” but says this political approach, if successful, would make school districts more “robust” while also reducing tax burdens and stanching the annual budget agonies.
Resident Mark Fasteau said he supported Elitzer’s motion for the “basic American principle that public school is free. Every family has the same right at the same cost within their district…however many children, whatever their income level is…it is a pillar of our democracy.”
Resident Mike McGuire asked the selectboard if there was a “disadvantage” to voting for this.
Board chair Sean Stanton said he saw none, but “I’m not speaking for the entire board.”
Elitzer’s petition would also mandate all towns in the state that are part of a regional school district to avoid “beggar thy neighbor negotiations that cause some small communities to play one district against another in bidding wars.”
Here Elitzer is referring to school tuition, by which students who do not have a school in their town can come to the district and have their tuition paid by the sending town. This state-mandated policy has been controversial in the ongoing local debate, since tuition agreements with the district never add up to enough to cover the entire cost of educating a student at Berkshire Hills. The most recent state data show the cost of educating a student at Berkshire Hills at around $17,000.
Former school committee member Fred Clark said he supported this, particularly because of the tuition agreements, that also don’t cover capital costs. He said this would be an “incentive” for equal cost sharing.
Finally, voters tonight established an Affordable Housing Trust Fund to be overseen by a board of trustees.
A fund of $50,000 from Community Preservation Act funds was approved by the Community Preservation Committee, and that will have to be approved at Annual Town Meeting in May.
Selectboard member Bill Cooke, who could not attend the meeting but who has made affordable housing his “mission,” had shepherded the trust fund to voters. “It is probably the most critical thing we need at the moment,” Cooke said.
Cooke said previously that voters had approved establishing a housing trust fund in 2007, “but nothing was done.” Now that this trust fund has been approved, a bylaw will be set up to allow the board of the trust fund to act as a separate municipal entity.
And Cooke has some thoughts about how the board might tackle the town’s rising real estate costs that leave many people out. He said he was in favor of something different from “a big development” that segregates affordable housing. Since the town has a number of homes sprinkled around that it is taking over for back taxes, he and other town officials have discussed transferring those homes to the trust, to be fixed up and turned into 2- or 3-family units. He said this would balance out the high price of real estate, partly due to the current pattern of second homeowners increasing home values by buying and renovating houses in town.
“Rather than 45 units in one part of town, we need 2-3 family units all over town,” he added. It is known as “scattered development,” he said, and it integrates rather than segregates.
“It will be up to the board to decide how that moves forward,” he noted, and he said he wants the board composed of people “who can make this happen.”
And with this approach of transforming these town-owned homes, Cooke said, “we can bite off small pieces. You don’t have to raise millions, or get money from the state.”
“It’s a forward thinking idea,” said Jane Ralph, the new executive director of the affordable housing non-profit, Construct.