School Committee Chairman Robert Barton moderates a public hearing of the school budget on Wednesday night.
LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — A divided elementary School Committee on Wednesday voted to send a $2.87 million budget to the June 10 annual town meeting.
On a vote of 2-1, the three-member panel approved a spending plan that asks the town for 3.23 percent more in town tax revenue in fiscal year 2015 than the school received this year.
Officials were quick to stress that the FY15 school budget includes additional costs that have been added to the school's burden.
Specifically, the school lunch program has been moved from the town's budget to the school's budget, a $26,500 bump in the school budget. Without it, the school's appropriation to the town is actually 2.18 percent higher than the FY14 figure.
"Apples to apples, we didn't have the school lunch program last year," committee member Regina DiLego said.
Even with that in mind, Chairman Bob Barton voted against the budget after arguing that committee should continue finding ways to "squeeze" it.
DiLego pointed out that during a one-hour public hearing that preceded the meeting, not one member of the public asked the committee to make further cuts.
"No one challenged our number, nobody asked us to reduce that number," she said. "Why would we?"
Barton said the committee has a responsibility to make the budget as tight as possible, and he still saw areas that could be trimmed.
"We know more about this budget than anyone who rolls in for the night or even the town administrator," he said, referring to Paul Sieloff, who attended the public hearing and asked questions of the committee but who did not specifically question the bottom line.
"Our responsibility is to create a budget that provides for excellent operation of the school, and we are the only ones who really know what's required. ... We know there's $6,500 in the budget that isn't required."
The nearly $3 million budget primarily is funded by appropriated revenue (town taxes) but also includes $265,717 in spending from non-appropriated sources (grants, school choice revenue and tuition from the prekindergarten program).
DiLego said she was "scared" the spending plan as drafted already is too tight.
"I feel what we have here is squeezed to the point where I'm worried about what's going to happen next year," she said. "If we go to town meeting and [voters] reduce it ... we have to go back and find painful ways to make cuts in our programs."
Committee member Jim Moriarty asked DiLego whether that was an argument for finding every possible cut now in order to present a more palatable budget to the voters.
"If you bury a lot of fluff in the budget, sure," DiLego said. "Do I think there's fluff in this budget? No."
"Then I'm probably inclined to leave it the way it is," Moriarty said before joining DiLego in supporting the budget proposal.
About a half-dozen members of the community, including Sieloff, took the opportunity to ask questions about the budget during the public hearing that opened the evening in the school's caefeteria.
The bulk of the questions revolved around the reinstatement of the school's pre-kindergarten program.
It is unknown at this point, officials said, whether the pre-K class would be a drain on the school's budget or a slight benefit to the bottom line. If each family participating in the program pays the full tuition price, the program would finish $5,000 in the black.
But that is a big if.
"I'm not going to say [pre-K will be self-sufficient] until it's open," Director of Pupil Personnel Services Kim Grady said in response to questioning from Sieloff. "It's open because it needs to meet needs of the special education population.
"The goal is it will sustain itself, but the reality is it's year one. If you look back at the history it didn't sustain itself."
Sieloff also pressed the School Committee for information about the elementary school's practice on school choice students.
"I asked that because of concern with choice students eventually going up to the high school," said Sieloff, who said he was asking on behalf of the town's Board of Selectmen. "Was that a discussion topic at all, or is the elementary school not working with that issue at all."
DiLego said Selectman Robert Ericson asked the same question of the School Committee after its recent vote to set school choice levels for the 2014-15 academic year. The committee told Ericson if the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee (on which Ericson also sits) wants to discuss school choice strategy, it is welcome to do so.
The school's legal counsel, Fred Dupere, attempted to clear up at least one point that has been discussed recently at the high school level: whether school choice students from Mount Greylock's "feeder" schools (Williamstown Elementary and Lanesborough Elementary) are guaranteed a seat at the junior-senior high school.
"I've reviewed this issue with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education over the years, and the way DESE treats this part issue is that if you're a regional school district with elementaries that feed in ... the children from elementaries have a right to enter the regional district," Dupere said.
In other business on Wednesday, the committee set the calendar for the 2014-15 school year.
The school year will being with a half day on Aug. 27, and the year will end (barring snow days) with a half day on June 15.
The committee decided to go against the calendar proposed by the school's administration, which recommended closing on Dec. 22 and 23, a Monday and Tuesday. On a 2-1 vote, the committee decided to hold school those two days.
Principal Ellen Boshe said she and the faculty believed that the two days before the long holiday break would not be productive academic days, and it would not be worth opening the school.
Committee members DiLego and Moriarty expressed concern about a longer layoff and the time it would take to get the students back into the proper frame of mind on Jan. 5 (the Monday after the Christmas break ends). Moriarty actually suggested reopening school on Friday, Jan. 2, but Boshe noted that a one-day "week" would not be optimal, if for no other reason than it means heating the school for one day in the dead of winter.
The committee also took the following actions:
♦ It voted unanimously to raise the lunch prices for next year from $2.25 to $2.50 per meal for students and from $4 to $4.50 per meal for adults.
♦ It OK'd five after-school programs for the 2014-15 year. LES will continue to offer drama, math club and MCAS tutoring after school and will offer two new programs: robotics and tridistrict chorus, an arts program shared with Williamstown and Mount Greylock.
♦ It discussed a May 22 meeting with Williamstown Elementary to discuss the future of Superintendency Union 71, the partnership between the two elementary schools that was created to share resources and services. School committee members from Mount Greylock also plan to attend the meeting, DiLego said.