Southern Berkshire School Committee adopts same $16m budget, without funding 2 village schoolsMore Info
Editor’s note: This article has been revised to include the cancellation of the hearing for the Egremont lawsuit scheduled for May 30.
Sheffield — Pressed for time and beset with concerns over transportation issues, the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee voted Thursday night (May 25) to send the same budget back to voters that was rejected by two member towns earlier this month.
The vote to recertify the district’s original $16 million spending plan, which represents an increase of only about half a percent over last year, passed 9-1, with only Mary Ellen Brown of Monterey dissenting. Brown said Monterey residents rejected the budget the first time around because they were upset at the closing of the Monterey School and this proposed budget does nothing to address that.
“Approving the budget must be done before we leave tonight,” Chairman Carl Stewart announced at the onset.
But first there was the matter of what to do with a policy change in bus transportation that had upset some parents and caught the School Committee by surprise.
In an email to parents earlier this week, Superintendent David Hastings told New Marlborough Central School parents that next year only students residing in New Marlborough or Monterey will be provided with direct transportation to NMCS.
The announcement upset parents of students from Sheffield and Egremont who attend the New Marlborough school. And it fed into the cynical notion that the School Committee was trying lower enrollment at NMCS in order to eventually close it, as was the fate of the community schools in Monterey and Egremont.
And the email was not copied to School Committee members, most of whom were caught off guard after reading an article in The Edge earlier in the day that broke the news of the new policy.
“I woke up to my daily dose of The Edge and saw this,” said Bonnie Silvers, who represents Sheffield on the School Committee. “I believe that letter should have been sent to the School Committee as well.”
“As head of the transportation subcommittee, I was really blindsided by all this,” added Art Batacchi, who also represents Sheffield.
Superintendent David Hastings explained that he had warned parents in February that “there might have to be collection points” for students from Sheffield and Egremont to NMCS, rather than a bus route that stops in or near their homes.
The change in policy was necessitated by an added expense, business administrator Christine Reagan explained. The school district’s current bus contractor, Ormsbee Bus Company, is garaged in New Marlborough. Consequently, it did not cost much to add an extra bus route from Ashley Falls to NMCS. But the new bus contractor, Massini of Sheffield, will have to add another bus to the tune of an extra $52,000 per year.
So if the School Committee wants to embrace the Finance Subcommittee’s recommendation to present the same budget for voters to accept or reject, but wants to keep the transportation scheme the same to NMCS, then it will have to come up with $52,000 in an already tight budget.
Finance Subcommittee Chairman Dennis Sears made a motion to “recertify” the same budget. Since his motion passed, the towns that had rejected the school budget could consider it again in separate special town meetings.
The district’s proposed budget for next year was soundly defeated in Monterey and Egremont at town meetings earlier this month but passed in the other three member towns. That means the budget fails because the district agreement requires that four of five member towns agree to fund their share of the spending package. So new town meetings must be held and more votes taken, making the future uncertain.
Stewart said the same budget, or one with lower spending, would not have to be voted on by the taxpayers of either Alford or Sheffield. New Marlborough passed its share of the school district’s budget but a Proposition 2½ override failed, which effectively defeated the budget there.
However, Sears said he had obtained an opinion from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) that New Marlborough’s share of the school district budget had effectively passed in spite of the defeat of the override.
“I think we should proceed forward with the assumption that New Marlborough passed,” Sears surmised.
Stewart, who is also an attorney, further explained that a town that rejects a regional school budget has 45 days after the adoption of a revised budget by the School Committee to hold a special town meeting to vote on that budget. Towns that do not act at all are deemed to have passed the budget by virtue of their inaction.
But 45 days would extend well past July 1, after which time if a regional school district has not passed a budget, DESE sets one for it. Hopes are high that Egremont and Monterey will hold special town meetings before that time in order to avoid state action.
Even so, both of those towns voted earlier this month against the budget largely because of the closing of their community schools and the School Committee hasn’t announced plans to reopen them. Of course, it’s possible Egremont and Monterey could split the difference and simply refuse to hold special town meetings and thereby approve the budget without having to actually vote to do so.
Then, quite apart from getting the budget passed before July 1 is the question of how to find the extra $52,000 to restore transportation to New Marlborough Central School for next year. And Stewart added to the discussion the matter of the district defending itself against a lawsuit from one of its member towns.
In its budget proposal for FY 2018, the committee failed to include funding for the Egremont school, prompting the Board of Selectmen to file a lawsuit seeking to reverse the action.
A hearing was scheduled for Tuesday, May 30, at 2 p.m. at Berkshire Superior Court in Pittsfield. But Ken Gogel, Egremont’s special counsel for the lawsuit, told The Edge on Saturday that the hearing has been postponed.”
“I received a call from the Superior Court clerk yesterday indicating that the judge had a family issue and has cancelled the session on Tuesday,” Gogel said in an email. “I am working with the District’s counsel and the Court to rescheduled the hearing.”
The district’s budget line for legal expenses is set at $45,000 for next year, but Stewart said he doubted it would be sufficient.
“It will be in excess for our usual bills for legal counsel,” Stewart said.
Stewart explained that Egremont town counsel has established a schedule for the litigation and believes it will reach its conclusion by August 2018. It will put the town of Egremont in the unusual position of paying twice because it is paying to sue the school district and then must pay its share of the district’s legal bills resulting from the litigation.
Stewart said he will be “meeting in very near future with or among” the chairmen of the boards of selectmen of the five member towns.
“I’m cautiously optimistic something positive will come of it,” he said. “This [will] not [be] an open meeting for obvious reasons.”
In explaining her no vote, Brown of Monterey said, “If we send back the same budget, Monterey will turn it down … Monterey wants its school back.”