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Sue Bush
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Adams Education: A Taxing Investment

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Friday, January 06, 2006

Adams-Cheshire Regional School District Superintendent Alfred Skrocki spoke at a public forum in Adams on Jan.5.
Adams – Major education issues are looming for this community, and a Jan. 5 public, interactive forum –hosted at one of the schools likely to cause heated controversy- delivered a preview of the debate that is likely to dominate town politics during the forseeable future.

Adams-Cheshire Regional School District Superintendent Alfred Skrocki delivered a power-point presentation during the forum, which was held at the Adams Memorial Middle School auditorium.

Prudential Committee Chairman Edward Capeless and Selectmen’s Chairwoman Myra Wilk also delivered presentations. [see related story "Residents Bring It On"]

Middle School Renovation Possibility

A multi-million dollar renovation of the middle school building is currently the preferred choice among eight school improvement options being considered by the district’s school committee. If approved by voters in both district towns, the renovation would result in a “95 percent new” building and grades five and Cheshire's grade six students would also attend classes at the site, Skrocki said. Town grade six students currently attend the middle school.

“This was built for 1952 needs,” Skrocki said. “It has been retrofitted several times in the past 20 years.”

Current estimates for a middle school renovation are at about $17 million, said Skrocki. One immediate obstacle is that the state’s School Building Assistance Bureau, which provided school renovation and construction reimbursements to municipalities, has ceased all new project funding until 2008. When the agency re-opens, it will be known as the School Building Bureau and will be governed by new, and more restrictive, criteria, Skrocki said.

“We don’t know what the [available] reimbursements will be and we don’t know what the criteria will be,” he said. “We have to speculate.”

Best Guesses

Town resident and former School Committee member Jeffrey Lefebvre questioned the $17 million estimate and suggested that $23.4 million was a more realistic project cost estimate. Skrocki acknowledged that the $17 million estimate was a “2005 number,” and project costs are likely to rise.

Skrocki displayed a chart that estimated taxpayer costs if the proposed project were launched in 2009. If 62 percent of renovation costs were reimbursed by the state, under a 20-year bond, the town share of the proposed project would be about $583,055 and the Cheshire share would be about $117,183, according to the prepared chart.

If repayment occurred under a 25-year bond, the town would pay back about $524,354 while Cheshire taxpayers would foot a $105,385 bill. A 20-year bond would increase town property taxes by about $1.30 per thousand dollars of assessed value; a 25-year bond would generate a $1.17 increase to town taxpayers. An estimated Cheshire property tax increase would be less; $0.46 per thousand dollars of assessed value under a 20-year bond and $0.17 under a 25-year bond, according to the chart.

The Cheshire share is less because the town sends fewer students to district schools.

Four District Schools

The district operates four schools: a pre-kindergarten through Grade 6 school built in Cheshire in 1923 [with additions in 1952 and 1962], the middle school, which was erected as high school in 1952 and currently houses grades 6,7,and 8 [Cheshire 7th and 8th grade students attend the school], the C.T. Plunkett Elementary School, which was erected in 1923, underwent a renovation and expansion in 1994 and educates pre-kindergarten through Grade 5 students, and the Hoosac Valley High School, which was built in 1970. A new heating and ventilation system was installed at the school in 1998, a new roof was placed over the pool-gymnasium-auditorium area in 2002 and the remainder of the building received a new roof in 2003.

Another fly in the district’s financial ointment is that the middle school building requires about $4 million in immediate repairs. If undertaken now, the repair costs will not be eligible for any state reimbursement funds, and will impact the town tax rate, Skrocki said.

Lefebvre immediately questioned the need.

“How did this building get to this state?” he asked. “Don’t we put money into this building?”

Skrocki said that numerous residents have asked the same question.

“You have to understand, this is a 50-year-old building,” he said.

A Complex Numbers Game and a Poor Funding Formula

School districts state-wide are being financially crippled by an ineffective state funding formula and unfunded federal mandates such as the “No Child Left Behind” education act, Skrocki said.

“It’s been very difficult and this is how we’ve been operating for the past four years," Skrocki said.

The district’s $15,467,096 Fiscal Year 2006 budget is built on $9,630,920 in state-funded Chapter 70 funds, a $2,746,080 town assessment, a $1,601,033 Cheshire assessment, a $258,063 state reimbursement for students who enrolled in the Berkshire Arts and Technology charter school, and $1,231,000 in district revenues.

Skrocki noted that the Chapter 70 revenues have been level-funded for the past four years, although district costs have risen, and the charter school reimbursement is actually misleading, because it costs the district $163,966 for tuition to the charter school. The net revenue of the reimbursement is $94,097, he said.

The district educates 1,778 students, with 1,680 students enrolled from district towns. Other students come from Savoy, which pays tuition, and through a school choice option, also with tuition.

There are 256 teachers, administrators, and support staff, such as cafeteria workers, employed by the district. Health insurance costs were reduced for FY 2006 because district employees increased their health plan contribution from 10 percent to 20 percent.

Existing school district funding formulas assembled by state officials do not reflect increases in health care benefits or escalating fuel costs, Skrocki said.

Looking to FY 2007 And Beyond

Financial issues plaguing the Fiscal Year 2007 district budget include a $102,882 [104.96 percent] jump in charter school tuition, a $162,700 [4.76 percent] increase in employee benefit costs, and a $166,426 [22.75 percent] increase in heat and utility costs. School choice revenues are expected to decline, Skrocki noted.

Lefebvre asked whether developing 31 lots as residential sites would impact the school district and Skrocki answered that if the town tax base expansion plan relies on family growth, the school district will be impacted.

Stephen Dadek asked about school population, and Skrocki said the population is declining. According to Skrocki, a student population projection covering to 2012 has been assembled; one issue with a projection is that a number of variables –including a jump in housing and children enrolled at district schools- can make the estimates inaccurate. Any school renovation project, once approved and presented to the state, must meet the district’s education needs for 50 years.

“And one thing is, once a project has been approved, we can’t go back [and start again],” Skrocki said.

Dadek likened “growth for growth’s sake” to cancer.

“It seems like we are all racing toward that growth rate and growth for growth’s sake has the mindset of a cancer cell,” he said. “We’re going to kill ourselves with a tax rate that we can’t afford to live here.”

Residents suggested eliminating the middle school and moving the middle school students to the high school as a cost-saving strategy.

There were immediate objections.

Speaking For the Children

District schoolteacher Beth Bourdon said that the middle school years are unique and the students are also unique. The district’s existing middle school concept is great, she said.

“I think that we need to be here to speak for our children,” she said. “I find it ironic that most of the people who have children that will be affected are not here.”

Bourdon said that in many cases, those who should speak for their children were unable to attend the forum because they were at home caring for their children.

“Many of you took care of us,” Bourdon said. “We will take care of our children and someday, they will give it back.”

Sixth-grade teacher Mark Cziaja echoed Bourdon’s sentiments.

“We have a few people here with a business mentality,” he said. "If we paint schools with just a business face; I got into teaching because it’s about human faces.”

“Mr. Dadek said that growth for growth’s sake is a cancer,” he continued. “Not taking care of the cells of your community, which are our children, is the death knell for the community. If we look at this strictly as dollars, we will be doing a disservice to our kids.”

Cziaja noted that those who may consider moving to town will pass on the opportunity if they see a stagnant school system and encounter a citizenry that does not support education.

Education in and of itself is an investment, he said.

“When you raise kids, when you work with kids, that is not just for the now, it’s for a lifetime,” he said.

"How Do We Pay?"

After the forum adjourned, Selectman Edward MacDonald said that the town has a responsibility to serve all its residents, including senior citizens, homeowners, and youth.

“The question is, how do we do it,” MacDonald said. “How do we pay? There’s only so many Ben Franklins to go ‘round.”

School officials could investigate developing a building that uses environmentally friendly “green technology,” and research what grants might be available in that arena, he said.

“And maybe I’m wrong, but I didn’t think it was a building that put the quality into education, I thought it was the teachers,” he said. “You really do have to find a balance and you do have to look at alternatives.”

MacDonald said that he believes many residents won’t speak at a public forum because they have concerns about reactions to their opinions.

“They will communicate with their vote,” he said.

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush@iberkshires.com or at 802-823-9367.
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