Great Barrington — After a series of cuts and a surprise no-increase in the district’s health insurance premiums, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee has reached a consensus on a budget that has brought the proposed increase to Great Barrington taxpayers down to less than 5.5 percent.
The committee will vote Thursday, March 8, on a budget that is approximately $275,000 less than it was a week ago when Chairman Steve Bannon asked Superintendent Peter Dillon to come back with $250,000 in cuts, largely in order to get the increase to Great Barrington down to an acceptable level.
The original net combined operating and capital budget proposal, after grants and reimbursements, called for spending of a little more than $28 million, an increase of some 6.37 percent from last year. That spending plan would have increased Great Barrington’s assessment (or share) by a walloping almost 10 percent.
After it was learned that the $500,000 budget for health insurance increases from Berkshire Health Group would not be needed, the increase to Great Barrington’s assessment for next year dropped to 6.7 percent. But Bannon insisted it needed to go lower.
So Dillon and business administrator Sharon Harrison returned Thursday with four options to achieve the savings Bannon was asking for. Click here to see the options and the impact they would have on next year’s budget. More on that later.
The highlight of Thursday’s meeting was an unusual appearance by Great Barrington’s town manager Jennifer Tabakin, who told the school committee that the town is very close to exceeding its levy limit imposed by Proposition 2½, a state statute that limits tax levy increases.
“In past years, the school increase was able to be offset by decreases in the town budget,” Tabakin said. “At this point, because we also have reserves and made additional cuts, we don’t have that ability. We don’t have a window of levy so we’re up against our capacity.”
When Bannon interrupted to remind Tabakin that a discussion on that topic had already taken place, Tabakin insisted that she had the floor and threatened to walk away if Bannon did not want her to speak.
See video below of Tabakin’s statement and her exchange with Bannon:
Tabakin said the town and the school district needed to work together. She asked the school committee to delay its vote to approve or reject the proposed budget, which the panel is scheduled to do Thursday, March 8, because she would like the school committee to meet first with Great Barrington’s selectmen and finance committee.
Both Bannon and school committee member Rich Dohoney reminded Tabakin that the committee could not do so because, by law, the committee must approve a budget at least 45 days before it goes to the district’s member towns for approval at their annual town meetings. This year Great Barrington’s town meeting will be held Monday, May 7.
So it was agreed that Tabakin, Great Barrington officials, and those from Stockbridge and West Stockbridge would be invited to attend the Berkshire Hills Finance Subcommittee’s upcoming meeting Tuesday, March 6, at 5 p.m. at the district’s administration offices in Stockbridge. It is not clear in which capacity Bannon will attend. He is both the chair of the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee and vice chair of the Great Barrington Selectboard.
Bannon later told the audience that the latest round of reductions made by Dillon and Harrison actually brought the town of Great Barrington under its levy limit. That version of the budget proposal, which the school committee implicitly endorsed Thursday, added back an elementary school teacher who was proposed to be cut while eliminating some other proposed spending such as $36,000 for an after-school bus, $25,000 for a communications specialist and $17,600 for a part-time high school speech therapist.
So the version (option 3) of the spending plan that the school committee will approve or reject Thursday, March 8, will get the increase in Great Barrington down to 5.39 percent. The other two towns will actually see decreases:
This strange phenomenon is the result of a rise in student enrollment from Great Barrington and an increase in the town’s state-mandated minimum local contribution, which determines a minimum each town should pay based on the wealth of the community.
This year, Great Barrington’s minimum local contribution was $6.9 million. For fiscal year 2019, it will be almost $7.2 million. That’s a rise of about 5 percent. In 2017, it was only $6.75 million.
See video below of the discussion of option 3 and a motion by Dohoney to reinstate the after-school bus:
So to recap, the school committee will either endorse or reject the new proposed budget Thursday, March 8. Great Barrington officials and those from Stockbridge and West Stockbridge are invited to the Berkshire Hills Finance Subcommittee’s meeting Tuesday, March 6, at 5 p.m. at the district’s administration offices in Stockbridge.
In other business, school committee member Bill Fields of Great Barrington made a motion against the arming of teachers, an idea that was floated by President Donald Trump in the aftermath of the mass shooting at a Florida high school earlier this month. It passed unanimously.
Last week, the Edge published a story titled “Arming teachers: South County educators slam Trump proposal,” about local reaction to the concept. Click here to read it. The Edge contacted Fields for comment but his reply arrived too late to be included in the story. His response is published below:
Sorry for the belated reply … I am only speaking for myself but the idea of teachers having guns in school is notably illogical but also absurd. We need smaller class sizes, more counselors and paraprofessionals as well as licensed social workers in our schools not more guns.
The idea that teachers must be the security lookouts in school only ruins the relationship that is important to develop between teacher and student. Schools that have a good communication rapport between teachers and students whereby students can trust adults and talk to them in a way they know they are being respected, cared for and appreciated is what we should be striving for.
Students who respect each other and care for each other is what we should be striving for. More guns only serve to exacerbate the problem not help deal with it.