Central Berkshire Budget Cuts Avoided — For Now

By Dan GigliottiiBerkshires Correspondent
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The School Committee on Tuesday rejected a recommendation to cut teaching positions at this point. A public hearing on the budget is set for next Thursday.

DALTON, Mass. — The Central Berkshire Regional School Committee has approved a tentative budget that includes no cuts.

Despite a recommendation by its finance subcommittee to cut positions, the School Committee voted 6-4 to approve the original budget made by Superintendent William Cameron earlier this year in excess of $27 million.

The fiscal 2015 budget now includes an increase in town assessments of 7.3 percent to help alleviate a $1.2 million shortfall in revenue.

Six full-time equivalent teaching positions would have been cut in the draft presented by Business Manager Finance Committee Chairman George Desmarais during the four-hour meeting on Tuesday at Nessacus Regional Middle School.

The meeting was rescheduled from Thursday, when a snowstorm caused its cancellation.

Despite the approval, School Committee members believe there is still much to debate, including the potential to cut teaching positions.

"We're not going to close the budget without reducing staff," Desmarais said. "We can zero-out everything but staff ... there's all kinds of wild things you can propose. The bottom line is, without reducing staff, it's going to be very difficult to reduce the budget."

Although the percentage increase in assessment for each of the seven municipalities varies depending on its respective student enrollment and other factors, the figure represents an exponential increase from the previous fiscal year's assessment (0.67 percent) and that proposed by the finance subcommittee (4.5 percent).

The subcommittee's recommendation was voted down after a 20-minute briefing on its contents and a discussion of about equal length. That version included a shortfall of $440,704 — less than the approved tentative budget — which was accomplished by means of cuts to six FTEs.

According to Desmarais, 90 percent of the budget is comprised of salary increases, transportation and health insurance expenses, and these are not keeping up with the annual increase in revenue. He reported an increase of more than $43,000 in Chapter 70 education funding, along with a decrease in Chapter 71 transportation funding of more $23,000.

"If the state doesn't do something radical or we don't do something radical, we won't be able to pay salaries," Desmarais said. "We've gone a bunch of years, really, holding the line on budget increases. We snuck by last year, but this year ... ." Desmarais said, trailing off and referring to the previous Business Administrator Marge Foster, who had been foreshadowing the increased scale of the district's fiscal shortfall for at least four years.

The difference in town assessments percentages from fiscal 2014 in the recommended budget range from a decrease of .78 percent to an increase of 5.97 percent, that being for Dalton. The assessments in the tentative approved budget are higher at 1.2 percent for Cummington and 9.2 percent for Dalton*.

"During our deliberations, we looked at a lot of other options," Desmarais said. "When it was all said and done, we decided as a subcommittee, that we would go with the recommendations of the administration," saying the group looked at cutting athletic programs among other areas of fiscal savings.

Since Cameron's initial budget draft was created, health insurance rates were increased by 9.5 percent, considerably higher than the rate the district initially projected it would amount to. The adjusted rate was factored into the total salaries and benefits factor of more than $18 million.

The tentative budget calls for staffing additions of a new music teacher at Wahconah High, a new health teacher at Nessacus and a three paraprofessional positions, the latter of which are a necessity based on state mandates. A series of Advanced Placement courses at Wahconah as part of the state Math and Science Initiative (MMSI) are included, though Cameron predicts that about half the estimated $45,000 in programming will be reimbursed by grants.

Additional funding for an information technology technician position (.275 FTE) and a set of Chromebooks ($60,000) to aid the administration of future testing of the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments are part of the budget once again, after being removed by the finance subcommittee as part of its recommendation.

Richard Farley, a member of the finance subcommittee and an administrator at Wahconah for about four decades, voted against cuts being made to teachers because of its impact to the quality in education.

In reference to cuts being proposed to Wahconah and Craneville Elementary, Farley said, "This year, [students and staff] may be able to squeeze, but next year it's going to be a disaster. There's way too many students. The class sizes are going to be huge.

"It's just not fair to our students to make these kind of cuts," Farley said, who was told by a member of the Dalton Select Board that it will be very tough to pass the budget in Dalton.

A public hearing on the proposed budget will be held on Thursday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m. at Nessacus Regional Middle School.

*Several minor corrections were made on Feb. 21, 2014, to clarify some information; School Committee member Richard Lacatell provided the assessment range for the tentative approved budget. The original range given did not identify it was for the recommended budget.

Tags: CBRSD,   fiscal 2015,   school budget,   

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