Great Barrington voters endorse regional school and town budgets

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By Wednesday, May 7 News
David Scribner
Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon (at podium on left) explains the features of the regional school district budget to the Great Barrington annual town meeting.

Great Barrington — Exactly seven months after town voters rejected a proposed $56 million reconstruction of Monument Mountain Regional High School by a 2 to 1 margin, in a paroxysm of resentment against the perceived indifference to rising property taxes on the part of the Select Board and the School Committee, those very same voters – by a two-thirds majority –approved both the town’s and the regional school district’s budgets presented May 5 at the annual town meeting.

Perhaps it was the setting: the elegant, restored Mahaiwe Theatre in the heart of downtown that induced a more measured tone to the proceedings and persuaded the 455 residents in attendance to agree to $23.3 million in town and education expenditures for fiscal year 2015. (A more argumentative tenor could return to town meeting next year, if the Select Board follows a nonbinding resolution, the town meeting will return to the high school auditorium.)

But the difference between the 2013 and 2014 annual town meetings is more likely the consequence of general agreement between the Finance Committee and the Select Board on most proposed budgets – all but the regional school assessment. (Last year year’s meeting was dominated by quibbling between the two boards, with the Finance Committee attempting – unsuccessfully – to strip selectmen of their annual $1,500 stipend. This year, Select Board pay sailed through without dissent.)

Just the same, it was a closer call than it may have seemed for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District’s $12.6 million assessment for Great Barrington, an impressive $560,000 higher than last year’s. The Finance Committee and the Board of Selectmen were at odds over the proposed school budget. By a 3-2 vote, the Finance Committee recommended its rejection; by a similar margin, selectmen endorsed it. But the vote was, in reality, a squeaker because of what wasn’t permitted to happen.

Finance Committee, from left, Sharon Gregory, Tom Blauvelt, Mark Lefenfeld, Leigh Davis and Walter F. Atwood III.

Finance Committee, from left, Sharon Gregory, Tom Blauvelt, Mark Lefenfeld, Leigh Davis and Walter F. Atwood III.

During the discussion of the BHRSD assessment – 5.65 percent higher this year than last – an amendment was proposed from the floor to level fund the schools, at least Great Barrington’s share – thereby eliminating $560,000 from the school budget.

Superintendent Peter Dillon pleaded with voters to reject this amendment, declaring that the magnitude of such a reduction would cause “irreparable harm to the district.”

“We would have to eliminate 10 teaching positions, and that could mean all art and music instruction, as well as athletic and vocational programs,” he said.

School Committee member Rich Dohoney added that “during the year it took to craft this budget no potential cuts in spending went unexamined, but what you’re voting on is the firing of teachers. This is a lean budget. It’s our responsibility to education our children.

Dillon pointed out that in the past few years the district had eliminated 26 administrative positions.

But it was Finance Committee member Leigh Davis, a single mother with three children in BRHSD schools and one of the two committee members who supported the district assessment, who delivered a passionate endorsement of the school system that may have guaranteed passage of the school budget.

“I take a long-range view of the school system,” she declared. “The quality of education here increases the value of our community. It increases property values, and becomes a reason why businesses might want to be here. We have our teachers dependent upon what we decide here, and students depending on it, too, wanting to know whether their teachers will be back next year. This vote on the school budget is about an investment in the future, not a witch hunt.”

Before Davis made her statement, however, Finance Committee Chairman Sharon Gregory asked the moderator whether she could amend the amendment to slash $560,000 from the school budget. Moderator Edward McCormick denied her request, as out of order.

According to school officials, she was about to propose that the school budget be reduced by $200,000, a more moderate reduction that might have found favor with voters, but by that time, the moment had past, subverted, ironically, by an even more draconian plan.

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