Superintendent William Cameron explained the budget numbers during Thursday's public hearing.
DALTON, Mass. — Dalton officials on Thursday begged the Central Berkshire Regional School Committee to rethink a fiscal 2015 budget they say would be disastrous for the town.
The School Committee is preparing to finalize a budget on March 13; last week, it decided to reject a recommendation to make cuts, including teaching positions, and move forward with a $27 million budget proposal.
A number of parents, teachers and others advocated at past meetings to retain teaching positions and not cut educational needs.
But at Thursday's public hearing, Dalton officials signaled their opposition to the spending plan.
Dalton Town Manager Kenneth Walto described the consequences that a town assessment increase of 9.23 percent ($707,282) would have using hypothetical scenarios in which Dalton would lose its highway department, 60 percent of its police force, its senior center, library, street lighting and communications center; or lay off all administrative workers in Town Hall.
"If a town can't competently assess, collect and account for the people's funds, it is no longer a self-governing entity," Walto said. "I don't think 'beg' [is] too strong a word to use here to ask you not to enact a budget that results in an increase of more than $200,000 in our assessment."
A final budget adoption mirroring the so-called "tentative budget" would be enough to throw the town into a structural deficit deep enough to decimate its municipal budget and the services it provides, according to officials. Dalton is the majority leader in student population in the district and, thus is responsible for the bulk of what would be a $1.2 million increase in the fiscal 2015 budget, based on the current budget adoption.
About 30 members of the public gathered at Nessacus Regional Middle School on Thursday for the public hearing on the tentative budget, which will eventually face the scrutiny of the seven municipalities in the district's regional agreement. Five of the seven towns — including Becket, Cummington, Hinsdale, Peru, Washington and Windsor — must approve a final budget at its annual town meeting for it to become effective.
Dalton's Finance Committee Chairman Terry Williams began the public hearing by addressing the town's fiscal restraints mathematically. According to Williams, the brunt of costs incurred by an increased budget will come from the average homeowner, whose tax bill will increase by $350, an expense he says they cannot bear.
"It's not fair for the school to, basically, take all our new revenue and then ask us for another half-million dollars," Williams said. "We would have to make draconian cuts that I can't begin to imagine."
Dalton officials, the only municipal officials to speak at the hearing, said the town can afford to cover about $200,000 in increased education expenses, or an approximate 2.5 percent increase in town assessments, before reaching its deficit. The town's Select Board was baffled by the increases during its regular meeting on Monday, questioning the nature of the exponential increases from FY14.
Superintendent William Cameron's draft of the fiscal 2015 budget, which he presented at the Jan. 9 school committee meeting, was then delegated to the district's finance subcommittee to make a budget recommendation.
After receiving detailed direction from the finance subcommittee, Cameron created augmented versions of his original budget draft for the finance subcommittee's review, over an approximate six-week period, until the group agreed on a recommended budget on Feb. 6.
On Feb. 18, George Desmarais, chairman of the finance subcommittee, gave a detailed report of the recommended budget in the amount of $26,591,335 (a 3 percent overall increase from this year.). But the School Committee adopted a tentative budget for FY15 in the amount of $27,014,237 after a discussion surrounding the feasibility of the recommendation. The version it favored is structurally similar to Cameron's initial draft.
As a prelude to the public hearing portion of School Committee meeting, Cameron gave the audience a synopsis of the tentative budget's contents, including the sources of funding and the predicted expenditures the district is slated to incur.
In a PowerPoint slideshow, Cameron detailed the amount of state funding the district expects, though he said its estimated portion is just that — an approximation — and is subject to change. Chapter 70 and 71 funding — which represent an annual total number of general and transportation funds for school districts throughout the commonwealth — require legislative approval that will not be made until later in the calendar year.
Williams, who has more than 20 years of professional experience in municipal accounting outside of his role as Dalton's leading elected financial official, said it can be difficult for School Committee members on the whole to budget with sensitivities to financial implications outside of its educational system.
"People who join the School Committee — and, believe me, education is important — but they are single-minded in their pursuit of education and the district's success ... there's nothing wrong with that," Williams said. "I'm sorry that they all lose sight of the bigger picture, that they're a piece of the overall town's services."