School Committee Vice Chairman Chris Jones, right, ran the meeting in place of Chairwoman Valerie Hall, who was unable to attend.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The folks at Williamtown Elementary School may be wondering what all this talk about Berkshire County's population decline is about.
Principal Joelle Brookner and Superintendent Rose Ellis informed the School Committee on Wednesday that the school has about 17 more applicants than anticipated for the 2014-15 kindergarten class.
The news necessitated adding at least one half-time teacher and has the committee planning to revisit the four school-choice slots it already approved for the kindergarten class.
"We were expecting 44 [pupils] based on the census and input from local day cares and preschools," Brookner said. "After the first day of registration when we had 18 walk-ins, we were really surprised.
"Some were residents who didn't show up on the census for some reason, and a number were people who have moved into town."
The school will not have a problem covering the cost of the extra instructor. The fiscal 2015 budget approved by the committee on Wednesday has enough contingency in unappropriated funds to handle the budget hit.
But the 61 children currently enrolled to start kindergarten in September may not be the only ones to show up — with or without any of those choice slots.
"Last year, there weren't many [additional children] over the summer in kindergarten," Brookner said. "The year before, there were a lot. So we don't know.
"There will be more. We just don't know how many."
WES has typically had kindergarten classes in the 40s and 50s over the last decade or so. After a "bumper crop" of kindergarteners of 74 in 2004, the biggest class at that level was 65 two years ago.
This year's kindergarten class has 50 children in three sections for a pupil-teacher ration of about 16-1. The latest 10-year average is 53 children, and the school has had three sections in six of those 10 years.
"For all the planning we do, there are surprises, and this is a big one," Ellis said.
"It could be an aberration. We've had spikes like this before and also declines. We'll see if it's a trend over the next year or two.
"Looking at the numbers, we want to recommend a fourth kindergarten next year. This was not on the radar."
The committee's main business on Wednesday night was approval of the FY15 budget, most of which was OK'd at the last committee meeting.
The panel previously approved the appropriated expenditures — those that come from town coffers — in advance of a presentation to the Williamstown Finance Committee.
The appropriated portion of the budget is up 2.5 percent from FY14, which is in line with the rest of the town's budget. Last year's appropriated budget was $5.49 million; this year it is $5.63 million.
The total FY15 school budget actually is down slightly from FY14 — from $6.4 million to $6.3 million.
The school anticipates spending $230,804 less in non-appropriated revenue, which is from grants, school choice, pre-kindergarten tuition and other non-town sources.
In other business on Wednesday night, Ellis informed the committee that school employees are going to be required to participate in the Statewide Applicant Fingerprint Identification Services program under a recently adopted provision of Massachusetts law.
Superintendent Rose Ellis said the kindergarten spike could be an aberration but the school will look for trends.
The commonwealth has established 10 electronic fingerprinting centers across Massachusetts, with the closest one in Pittsfield. Ellis said the school will phase in the requirement for mandatory fingerprinting, starting with new hires. Employees will be required to pay a $55 fee to comply with the security measure.
The school will have several new faculty members in fall 2014, after four members of the faculty took advantage of an early retirement incentive offered this spring. Ellis told the committee on Wednesday that five WES teachers are retiring at the end of the school year — four courtesy of the early retirement incentive of $10,000, which was offered to staff with 55 and older with at least 20 years of service at the school.
The School Committee offered the early retirement package in hopes of realizing cost savings by hiring new teachers at lower salary levels.
The departing faculty members' positions will be offered to internal candidates first in accordance with the teachers' union contract. After the internal pool has been exhausted, those positions will be posted externally, along with any jobs vacated by successful internal applicants.
Brookner said she hoped to have all of the vacancies filled before the end of the school year to allow incoming faculty to interact with current staff in June.
The committee discussed the agenda for its May 14 meeting, which will include a re-evaluation of school choice slots (the choice lottery is May 15) and a discussion of possible price increases for the school cafeteria.