Lanesborough Selectman Robert Ericson discusses the impact of school choice and tuition students on Mount Greylock's budget.
LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — A town-commissioned enrollment projection for Mount Greylock Regional School does not differ drastically from the projections the School Committee and Massachusetts School Building Authority are using.
But that fact alone does not change the opinion of some Lanesborough officials that the district should consider building or renovating a smaller junior-senior high school.
The Lanesborough Board of Selectmen on Thursday sponsored what it billed as a "consensus building" session to evaluate the enrollment needs of the district, in which it partners with Williamstown.
And although everyone agrees Mount Greylock's student population will naturally decline in the next 25 years, several officials and one impassioned speaker from the floor agreed that the school should be even smaller — unless the towns that currently "tuition in" their students start bearing more of the financial burden.
"We are subsidizing other community's children," Lanesborough resident Ray Jones said during the public participation portion of the meeting. "Anybody who comes in here should pay, at a minimum, what we pay. If I'm running a business, I'm charging them a premium to come use our facility."
Representatives from Richmond, Hancock and New Ashford, which all tuition students into Mount Greylock, attended Thursday's meeting at the invitation of the Lanesborough Selectmen, but none of the officials from the smaller towns spoke directly to Jones' point.
His argument was supported by numbers compiled by Robert Ericson, a member of the Lanesborough Selectmen and the Mount Greylock School Committee.
Ericson outlined for the audience why he believes tuition and school choice students not only bring less than the per-pupil cost for education at the school (a fact no one disputes), but actually create more of a burden than most people realize.
According to Ericson's research, the 64 school-choice students and 42 tuition students currently in Grades 7 through 12 at Mount Greylock contribute $320,000 and $502,152, respectively, to the school's budget. The school is compensated at a rate of $5,000 per school choice student and $11,956 per tuition student.
But while they add a combined $822,152 to the district's bottom line, those students cost $1.7 million to educate (based on a per-pupil cost of $16,000). The difference, $873,848, is born by Williamstown and Lanesborough, Ericson argued.
Making matters worse, Ericson presented numbers that he said prove the school-choice and tuition students create a need for more faculty, to the tune of an extra $292,000 for this year's ninth grade class alone. That contention, though, was disputed by another member of the Mount Greylock School Committee and a faculty member in attendance.
With or without the increased manpower cost, the issue of some towns paying less per student than other towns resonated with many people in the room.
"It represents to our towns an undiscussed tax, basically, that we place upon the towns," Ericson said. "That's why I'm bringing this up.
"When I first discovered this, I realized this is something that we have not said we want to do."
And the topic comes up now in the context of enrollment projections because the MSBA wants an answer from the district about the size population it wants to plan for, should Mount Greylock's member towns decide to continue in the MSBA process.
Possibly cutting out the school choice and tuition slots from the student population would mean Mount Greylock would need a smaller building down the road.
On the other hand, adding New Ashford, Hancock and Richmond to the district as full-fledged members would mean those students would be funded at the same rate and the three smaller towns would pay a proportionate share of any rebuild or renovation to the school.
That's the solution to the "free rider" problem proposed by Lanesborough Town Administrator Paul Sieloff.
"There are a lot of people with unbelievably strong feelings in support of Mount Greylock, its history, traditions, etc.," Sieloff said. "As we also may know, there are also benefits if we could have more towns directly involved with the district. There'd be more state aid involved.
Lanesborough School Committee member Bob Barton told the meeting the town may want to consider keeping its students in the elementary school through eighth grade.
"Any additional towns to join the district would have the opportunity to join the planning for the school."
Sieloff invited the three towns to poll their residents, perhaps at this spring's annual town meetings, to see whether there is sentiment in favor of joining the Mount Greylock district.
He also offered a "quasi apology" to residents of the three towns for the feeling that anyone in the room was ganging up on them over the unequal funding issue.
Jones offered his own olive branch, as well.
"I want to support everybody's child, but not more than I support my child," he said.
Then, after citing lower property tax rates in the tuitioning towns than in Lanesborough, he added, "There's a lot of opportunity for them to help a little bit more than they're helping."
Although the meeting's most debated points revolved around dollars and cents, the bulk of the agenda was focused on demographics.
And there was a lot of information offered about population trends in Berkshire County — none of it good if you are hoping that population might rise.
Mark Malloy of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission set the tone for the evening with BRPC projections that show Berkshire County's population is heavier on senior citizens and declining faster than the rest of the commonwealth.
"We have a much smaller percentage of 20- and 30-year-olds than the rest of the state and the nation," Malloy said, referring to the current population. "Going along with that, there's a shortage of children."
That fact plus a longstanding trend of "out migration" from the county leads BRPC to predict the county's school-age population will drop by 28 percent by 2030 (from 19,504 in 2010 to 13,977) and by 49 percent by 2060 (to 10,030).
Malloy did not cite U.S. Census estimates that were released on Thursday by the New York regional office of the Census Bureau, but they would have backed up his claims.
The Census Bureau estimates that Berkshire County's population fell by 1,634 people from April 1, 2010, to July 1, 2013. It is one of just three counties in the commonwealth to show a population decline in that time frame; Barnstable County lost 898 people, and Franklin County a mere 151 people.
The impact of declining population regionally will be felt in the Mount Greylock district. It is only a question of how much it will be felt.
The MSBA projects Mount Greylock's enrollment, currently 585, will be 521 by 2020.
Berkshire Regional Planning Commission's Mark Malloy offered some dire statistics on declining population in the county.
Lanesborough-hired statistician Jean Bacon of North Adams' Community Works Research and Development to run the numbers again.
On Thursday, she told a crowd of about 70 gathered at Town Hall that she found problems with the underlying projections used by MSBA. But even after she corrected for those problems, she came up with a 2020 enrollment population of 527.
"It's comforting we have another professional coming out with similar projections," said Lanesborough resident Chris Dodig, who serves on the Mount Greylock School Committee.
In response to a question from the floor, Bacon noted that her enrollment figures (and MSBA's) include the tuition and school-choice students.
"It includes no policy changes," she said.
And BRPC's Malloy argued that both Bacon's and MSBA's numbers are artificially high because their underpinning is a population projection compiled by the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts.
The Donahue projections "bundled" Berkshire County with parts of Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire Counties, Bacon said.
"Donahue at 2030 projects Berkshire County loses 900 people," Malloy said. "We project that in two years. Right there, we have issues with the accuracy of Donahue.
"Berkshire County is very different from the rest of that region they're looking at. We think that's influencing the projections."