Central Berkshire Budget Draft Cuts Faculty, Hikes Assessments

By Dan GigliottiiBerkshires Correspondent
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Central Berkshire Regional's finance subcommittee is recommending faculty cuts and a hike in assessments for fiscal 2015.

DALTON, Mass. — Budget cuts loom in the Central Berkshire Regional School District, as school officials prepare a difficult spending plan for fiscal 2015.

A total of six teaching cuts and an increase in town assessments of 4.5 percent will be included in the tentative budget recommendation made to the School Committee on Thursday, Feb. 13. The committee must vote to approve the budget before it faces the scrutiny of the seven towns in the Central Berkshire district.

The budget proposal is approximately $26.6 million, a 3 percent increase from this year.

Since an initial budget was crafted by Superintendent William Cameron and presented to the School Committee on Jan. 9, the district's finance subcommittee made decreases in spending totaling 1.63 percent, or $440,704. This process included the elimination of full- and part-time teaching positions from the budget draft and removal of proposed additional staff.

It also includes an increase in the district's health insurance expenses of 9.5 percent, a total higher than Cameron and the finance subcommittee anticipated.

Initially, the draft budget was for $27 million, leaving a shortfall of $1.2 million. With the proposed staff cuts — and an additional increase in contribution from the district's Excess and Deficiency Account of $150,000 — there remains a shortfall of $776,470.

The finance subcommittee, which met Thursday night, will recommend this be alleviated through an increase in assessments to the seven towns of 4.5 percent. Last year, the town assessment was for approximately 0.67 percent.

Finance Committee Chairman George Desmarais said he plans to give a detailed history or a "road map" of the steps taken in the creation of the tentative budget at Thursday's School Committee meeting.

"What we're trying to do is provide the best, affordable education," Desmarais said. "Sometimes you can't afford the absolute best. You afford what you can afford."

According to district officials, the affected teaching positions are two elementary positions,  1.5 full-time equivalent at the middle school and 2.5 FTE high school positions.

The tentative budget includes most of the additions Cameron made in his initial draft, including a new music teacher at Wahconah, a new health teacher at Nessacus and a series of Advanced Placement courses at Wahconah as part of the state Math and Science Initiative. According to Cameron, additions of three paraprofessional positions must be added to the budget, based on state mandates.

Additional funding for the information technology technician position (.275 FTE) and a set of Chromebooks ($60,000) needed to administer pilot testing of the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments are excluded from the tentative budget.

About a dozen representatives from district schools attended Thursday's meeting, from educators to parents. A number of them commented on the potential impacts the budget poses to the quality of education in the region, particularly staff cuts and additional programming.

Craneville Elementary School Principal Kathy Buckley said the consolidation of the number of first- and second-grade classes from four to three in each grade level as a result of staffing cuts will make it more difficult for children to get the attention they need and teachers to meet mandated benchmarks.

"This whole new supervision and evaluation system — [teachers] need to focus on goals, and the goals have to be realistic and they have to be curriculum-related. They also have to be realistic, based on the number of students you're going to have in your class," Buckley said, referring to the number of pupils in each classroom increasing from between 15 and 17 to between 22 and 24. "It doesn't sound like a lot, number-wise. But it makes a big difference."

After speaking individually with district administrators and listening to the reasons given by committee members as to the nature of the cuts, Buckley said she is uncertain there are any better solutions.

"I think they're between a rock and a hard place. It's unfortunate. I don't know that they have any other solution. I know that they're good people and want to do what's best for kids. But I don't think they have control over the whole situation," Buckley said.

In conclusion of the budget discussion, School Committee Shawn Armacost gave figures representing the stark decrease in state aid to the regional district, saying he holds the state "accountable and culpable" for the fiscal hardship the district faces.

According to Armacost, the gross operating budget of the district has increased by 29 percent from fiscal 2003 to  fiscal 2014, comparable to the rate of inflation, or Consumer Price Index, which increased by 26 percent.

During that time, Chapter 70 state education funding increased by about 2 percent but Chapter 71 regional transportation funding decreased by 39 percent, according to Armacost.

In total, Armacost said state funding for the district decreased by 3 percent, while town assessments increased by 56 percent. Student enrollment in the district, meanwhile, dropped 23 percent, from an approximate 2,500 to 1,700 students.

"I don't know what it takes to boot them in the rear and get them to realize that we're hurting and that we can't get support from our towns anymore," Armacost said. "This is the real dilemma in this whole budget process, is the fact that not all the towns can afford these increases that we're asking for. They just can't."

Tags: CBRSD,   fiscal 2015,   school budget,   

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