The Central Berkshire Regional School District has difficult budget decisions to make this month.
DALTON, Mass. — The Central Berkshire Regional School Committee will have to make some hard decisions this budget season.
An exponential increase in health insurance rates for employees and proposed additions to staffing and programming means nearly a $1 million cuts or an increase in town assessments far greater than in recent years.
The fiscal 2015 budget for the seven-town school district is expected to be completed on Feb. 24.
"We have some difficult decisions to make," Superintendent William Cameron told the committee at its meeting on Jan. 23. "I say we, because I am hesitant, without knowing what the School Committee's thoughts are on increases or not in town assessments ... without some idea of where the committee wants to go, what I would have to present are cuts that would total about $840,000."
A preliminary budget outlook projects a $1.2 million shortfall requiring an increase in town assessments of 2 percent and 10 increase in funds from the excess and deficiency account. With that, the district still faces a shortfall of more than $800,000.
Last year, the seven-town district was given an increased assessment of approximately 0.67 percent.
The initial budget outlook a hike in health insurance rates, confirmed to be 9.5 percent last Monday. The new health insurance rate factor, along with an increase in state funding, is estimated to have a relatively small impact on the overall budget, according to Cameron, which means the school district will still face potential cuts.
"We can avoid looking at positions and programs for another year, and it'll probably be worse next year," George Desmarais, chairman of the finance subcommittee, said. "We really need to decide what it is that we can afford. What it is that we need to do to educate our children."
Limits in municipal contributions are leading to fiscal restraints, according to school officials, who say the budget trends of the recent past are unsustainable. In the next two weeks, the School Committee must decide what percentage increase in town assessment the school committee should propose.
Following the confirmation of health insurance rates, the finance subcommittee has advised Cameron to compose a new budget draft with a town assessment percentage of between 4 percent and 4.5 percent.
A tentative budget will be adopted at the Feb. 13 meeting at Berkshire Trails Elementary School. The finance subcommittee will meet Monday and Thursday at 6 p.m. at Nessacus Middle School.
Desmarais estimates that 88 percent of projected budget expenses are for salary and benefits. Step increases in salaries and insurance costs are inherently out of the control of school officials. A newly negotiated contract with Dufour Bus Co. is also responsible for increases.
"The budget was prepared in accordance with specific guidelines and instructions we all approved in October," Desmarais said, referring to a set of parameters dictated by the School Committee at an earlier meeting.
Cameron's budget proposal includes six proposed additions, totaling $379,244, including about $181,000 in salary for new positions.
"That figure ... could have been almost twice that much, based on what we received from principals and from the technology subcommittee," Cameron said. "What we've done here is attempt to pare down what the requests are, while taking recognition of what the most important ones seem to be."
Proposed Budget Additions:
• Five full-time positions, including three full-time pre-kindergarten paraprofessionals. A full-time music teacher and the creation of a health instruction position at Nessacus Regional Middle School, where 30 more students are projected next year, and additional hours to a part-time district information technology post.
"There can be plenty of discussion on whether these are the right choices," Cameron said. "This is what, administratively, looked to be the right choices at this time."
• Some $60,000 worth of Chromebooks — personal notebook computers — necessary to administer pilot testing of the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments to begin next year, among other positive outcomes.
• Wahconah Regional High School would alter current curriculum to include more advanced placement courses by way of the state Math & Science Initiative. This budget addition was included based on a report by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges following its evaluation of Wahconah in 2013.
• The percentage increase was based on a series of meetings with Berkshire Health Group — composed of about a dozen school districts and municipalities in the county pooling its collective resources together to purchase health care services.
The group used a considerable amount of its reserve funds to subsidize the cost of health insurance among municipal towns and districts in the last few fiscal years, to curb any substantial rise in the percentage of health insurance costs. This year, the group decided it's infeasible to continue with that method, according to Cameron.
The School Committee has scheduled a public meeting for Tuesday, Feb. 25, at 7 p.m. at Nessacus Regional Middle School, following its expected budget adoption a day earlier.
In a recent School Committee meeting, member Michael Hopper said he supports a strong increase in town assessments, based on the marginally low increases in past years and the debt it has caused.
"For two or three years now, we've been fighting to not do anything. Maybe it's time to add a little back in. We've assumed that debt and we have to pay for it," he said.
"Maybe it's time to say we can't come in at zero. And let the voters say, 'We want this for our towns. We want this for our schools.'"
Desmarais took a broad look at budget costs to narrow down what he said are the only areas of fiscal spending the district can reasonably make.
"You can eliminate pencils. That's a savings. You can zero-out textbooks. That's a really big savings. The bottom line is, with the contracts that we have, we can't do anything about the salaries we pay. We just can't," Desmarais said. "So, what we're looking at doing is... there's very little room left without looking at positions and programming.”
Chairman Michael Case used an old adage to convey what he said is the responsibility of the School Committee above all.
"There's an old military term that says, 'stay in your lane.' Well, our lane is to provide solid education in our schools. Our lane is not to balance the budgets in the various towns," Case said, suggesting that Cameron draft a budget that is a good fit and "let the towns vote it up or down."
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