Superintendent Rose Ellis, left, and School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Greene lead a public hearing on the fiscal 2015 budget.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee on Tuesday held a public hearing to discuss the district's preliminary fiscal 2015 budget.
The bottom line: Look for assessments to member towns Williamstown and Lanesborough to increase by 4.7 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
The town of Williamstown already indicated it will have a 2.5 percent increase in revenues for FY15. Lanesborough has not reported its revenue projection to the district.
School officials reported that the overall budget has been trimmed to the bone, with only a $37,000 increase over the FY14 budget.
But the district has seen significant increases in its costs for health insurance, collectively bargained salaries, utility costs and the a jump in the tuition rate for 16 students who attend charter schools.
To make up for the increased costs, administrators already have trimmed about $150,000 from last year's budget without sacrificing educational opportunities, they said.
Even with those cuts, the proposed expenditures for FY15 require $102,000 more from Lanesborough taxpayers and $213,000 more from Williamstown taxpayers.
"We've been very pleased to be able to offer minimal increases to the town assessments for several years," School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Greene said. "This is not one of those years, unfortunately."
In fiscal 2012, Lanesborough's assessment dropped 1 percent, and Williamstown's stayed flat. In fiscal 2013, Lanesborough's share of the cost rose .47 percent while Williamstown's rose .21 percent. For fiscal 2014, Lanesborough went up 1.3 percent, and Williamstown went down by 1 percent.
"Reserves are down, and revenues are down," Greene said. "That means we're not able to pass along as much of our own savings [to the towns]. The actual budget is up very, very minimally. ... It increases .35 percent, an extremely minimal increase in this budget.
"However, assessments are higher."
"These are significant increases, but they're not nearly as high as many of our peers in the county," Greene said.
An analysis prepared by the superintendent's office cites proposed increases for FY15 of 9.2 percent in Dalton, 4.65 percent in Great Barrington, 2.08 percent in Stockbridge and 13.16 percent in West Stockbridge.
The School Committee discussed at length some of the items that have been trimmed from the budget, and one member had a suggestion for a modestly budgeted co-curricular activity to add to the budget.
The most visible piece to be cut in the latest budget iteration is $85,000 to replace the curtain in the school auditorium — the troublesome, asbestos-laden curtain that forced the school to seek an alternate venue for last week's spring musical.
"I'm disappointed we had to cut the fire curtain from the budget, which is going to continue to affect our arts program," committee member Chris Dodig said. "I'm also disappointed we weren't able to add $5,000 to $10,000 to add a mock trial team.
"My question is, have we made any cuts to sports, and, if not, why aren't you looking there?"
Dodig twice during the meeting took pains to mention that he is a sports fan, but he argued that the district needs to share the burden of tighter budgets across extracurricular programs, not limit it to the arts.
Greene and Superintendent Rose Ellis said sports were not being left out of the belt-tightening process. Two of the school's 22 varsity teams — the boys and girls downhill ski teams — may be facing the knife.
"If sports are underenrolled, and I can say now the Alpine program is one that has been under discussion ... It has under 10 students and has been under 10 students ... and it costs about $9,000," Greene said.
Committee member Robert Ericson said he thought additional cuts to the athletic budget could include eliminating some assistant coach positions.
The committee asked administration to rework the budget with the $85,000 for the curtain back in the mix so the panel can take another pass at both versions of the budget before sending its assessments to the towns.
Another potential spending cut for the district: a reduction in the number of "late buses" to accommodate families whose students participate in extracurricular programs. At one time, Mount Greylock had three sets of late buses. It sent a bus to each member town at 4 p.m., 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., Greene said.
Currently, that number is down to two sets (or four buses), but it could be reduced even further to one set. The district is exploring a partnership with the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority to pick up some of the slack, but even that would cost money, Greene said.
Among the most notable cuts already made in the proposed budget is a 92 percent reduction in the amount of money the district proposes to spend paying down the debt on its locker room-boiler project. This year, it is spending $183,000 to pay down the principal on the $1.2 million bond; the preliminary FY15 budget proposes spending $15,000, a drop of $168,000.
Greene stressed that the committee should strive to send the towns an assessment that has a high likelihood of passage, but not everyone on her committee agreed with that strategy.
"I don't think it's the School Committee's job to reduce the assessment to the town," member David Langston said. "It's the School Committee's job to deliver the best budget that will deliver the best education for our students. Then it's the towns' job to decide whether they want to pay for it."
Greene said she believes sending an assessment that gets voted down at either Lanesborough's or Williamstown's town meeting is "problematic," and even more so in a year when the district is asking the towns for $93,000 and $139,500, respectively, to fund a feasibility study mandated by the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
"If [the budget] is voted down at town meeting, then we're in a position of having to do the district vote, and that's not a pretty picture," Greene said.
"Every once in a while, we need a district meeting as a reset button," Langston replied. "Running from the consequences of the need for more money for public education is not my idea of how to manage a school.
"I do not fear a district meeting. I think once every decade we need one."