The Finance Committee had no problems with Mount Greylock school budget but declined to recommend the town offset its reduced assessment by voting extra funds for the district.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Finance Committee on Thursday declined to draft a warrant article requesting funds for the Mount Greylock Regional School District in excess of the town's assessment toward the school's operating budget.
The proposed fiscal 2014 budget itself was received with minimal comment by the committee — not surprising since the town's share of the junior/senior high school budget is slated to decline by just more than $50,000.
But there was little support when School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Greene asked the Finance Committee about how the school could access funding on the order of the 2.4 percent increase going to other Williamstown "cost centers" under the town's proposed FY13 budget.
Greene noted that in each of the last two fiscal years, the regional school could not accept as much funding as Williamstown could have made available because the other town in the district, Lanesborough, was not able to offer any more than the school needed to meet its budget needs.
"Rather than accepting an increase from Williamstown, we're actually reducing its assessment," Greene said. "We were wondering if there was any way that money could be set aside."
The idea of a separate warrant article was discussed at Tuesday's school committee meeting. On Thursday night, Greene said she had consulted with counsel and learned that it would not be a good idea to ask one town to allocate extra money for a need (like capital expenses) that is already apportioned between the district's two towns.
"Since we're walking away from a fairly large sum of money, is there any way for the town to put the money aside, in free cash for example?" Greene asked.
Longtime Fin Comm member K. Elaine Neely said it was unlikely Williamstown would consider such an idea.
"We did do that one year," Neely said. "We paid $150,000 over our assessment to Greylock — a lot of years back. ... The feeling was we never wanted to do that again.
"The town voted it. We did it, but it wasn't pretty. ... And we said we wouldn't do it again."
Greene suggested that perhaps the town could draft an article that would allocate a sum of around $160,000 (the $50,000 the assessment is dropping plus 2.4 percent of last year's $4.6 million assessment) toward an item of need at the school, like new lab equipment.
Fin Comm member Suzanne Dewey appeared to sympathize with Greene's request.
"I'm struck that two years in a row, we've underfunded [Mount Greylock] compared to what we're capable of funding," she said.
Neely suggested the district would be better served asking Lanesborough to increase its contribution - a move that would allow the school to raise its regular budget request to both towns.
"I would have to be conviced Lanesborough doesn't have the means," Neely said.
"It is hard [to walk way from the money], but I don't think the solution is here. I think the solution is south of here."
Superintendent Rose Ellis took the committee through the fiscal 2014 budget.
Finance Committee Chairman Charles Fox, who met with School Committee members on Tuesday and attended that panel's budget hearing, stayed out of Thursday's debate and did not seek a motion to act on Greene's request. Finance Committee member Paula Consolini, who serves with Greene on the School Building Committee and the Regional District Amendment Committee, did not attend Thursday's Fin Comm meeting.
"We've gone as far as we can on that topic," Fox said, thanking Greene, Mount Greylock Superintendent Rose Ellis and Business Manager David Donoghue for their presentation.
There was a lot to like about the budget they presented. Pending approval of the state budget and the allocation of Chapter 70 aid, the district is on a firm financial footing.
Expenditures are expected to go up by $219,710, from $10.3 million in FY13 to $10.5 million in FY14. To make up the 2 percent gap, the district plans to use a portion of its FY14 school choice revenues and money from its excess and deficiency fund, the school budget's equivalent of free cash in municipal budgets.
Ellis told the Finance Committee that while the school is adding just more than 2.5 full-time equivalent positions in the proposed budget, the net impact of the additional staffing is just $55,000. She noted that the school district stands to benefit from a $170,300 drop in its cost for tuition to charter schools; fewer students are choosing the alternative schools, and some are coming back to Mount Greylock, she said.
One of the biggest positive factors in the budget is health insurance; the district anticipates no increase in that line item for FY14, an unprecedented development in Ellis' experience, she said.
On the other hand, the school continues to see some fixed costs rise, including transportation (2.5 percent) and utilities (8 percent). The latter cost, she noted, is exacerbated by the aging building.
School officials believe their fuel costs ($240,000 in FY14) are 50 percent higher than they would be with a newer, energy-efficient building.