LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — Selectmen Chairman John Goerlach said he is "thoroughly disgusted" that New Ashford is paying half the cost per pupil than Lanesborough is for the same education.
The town has a tuition agreement with New Ashford, which does not have an elementary school, to send its students to Lanesborough Elementary. The tuition is set at $8,730, which is about half of the per-pupil spending of the entire school. Goerlach has been pushing for an increased tuition rate for years, calling for it to equal the per-pupil spending rate the town is paying.
"Why are we still 50 percent? I don't get it. How many times we do we have to ask? I am thoroughly disgusted when I look at the numbers," Goerlach told the School Committee on Monday.
There are only a few towns in the state that tuition children into neighboring schools, which is done through tuition agreements. Lanesborough School Committee Chairwoman Regina DiLego says the tuition rate has been increasing over the years.
There are only 11 total students tuitioning into the school, most of them coming from New Ashford. DiLego says the numbers are so small per class that it doesn't trigger any additional services, so all of the income from tuition students helps with the inherent overhead of running the school. The School Committee wants to set a price point that brings in income without being so costly that parents send their children elsewhere.
"If they don't want to pay more, then you lose all of that," DiLego said, pointing out that the tuition money doesn't go to the elementary school's budget but instead to the town's coffers.
The same is the case when it comes to school-choice students, which the School Committee sets every year. The goal is to fill classrooms with additional out-of-town students but not to the point that it requires more teachers. For example, if the town is paying for enough overhead to have a class of 15 students but there are only 12 from town enrolled, then a few additional spots could be filled with school choice or tuition, bringing additional income to the town.
Assistant Superintendent Kimberly Grady said the majority of a school budget is overhead costs such as teachers' salaries and benefits, utility costs, and the like. All of which will have to be paid for regardless. DiLego added that the town's per-pupil cost is also somewhat inflated comparatively because transportation isn't factored in. The town provides busing for students in town but tuition students are expected to provide their own transportation.
Attorney Russell Dupere said, "it is a very fine line to make it work" when it comes to filling the spots that bring additional income without causing additional costs.
But that fine line is one Town Manager Paul Sieloff wants to avoid. Sieloff said costs get "exponentially greater" if the tipping point is reached. If students are accepted via school choice or tuition and ultimately those additional bodies in the room cause the need to hire another teacher, then the town is on the hook for salaries, benefits, and retirement for years to come. The costs for even one teacher, Sieloff says, exceeds whatever $5,000 per school-choice student or $8,000 per tuition student would bring in.
Sieloff calls for just educating children who live in town. That way, the costs are more known and townspeople can rest assured that taxpayer money is being spent on education the students from town. Selectman Henry Sayers said the perception is that the town is "subsidizing" students from elsewhere because those towns are paying less per student to attend the same school.
Grady countered, however, saying there are 18 elementary children from the town who choice out to other districts. The town pays for those students to attend elsewhere, and allowing children to school choice in fills that gap.
DiLego added that the School Committee hasn't ignored the Selectmen's request to monitor school choice closely. Town officials have previously expressed fear that even if accepting choice students may not raise the elementary school budget, in a few years when the students join their classmates from Williamstown at Mount Greylock Regional School, it could trigger the need for a new teacher there.
DiLego said since that discussion a few years ago, the School Committee now has enrollment and choice numbers for Williamstown Elementary School and that future possibility is carefully explored when setting choice numbers at the elementary school level.
Regarding residency of students, Sayers said he has heard that a number of children were getting off the bus at the Lanesborough border and parents were picking them up and driving them back to Pittsfield. He wondered if the school was actually ensuring residency of those enrolled. Grady responded that there is a strict protocol for residency and the administration does have police verify addresses if there are questions. The buses are open to school choice students to take to a stop in Lanesborough if there is enough room, she said, so that may answer the question.
"If there is room on a bus, I don't think anybody is going to argue about it. It is not like a child from Lanesborough is getting kicked off the bus so a choice kid can ride it," School Committee member PJ Pannesco said.
The tuition and choice discussion was the most heated, with Goerlach becoming frustrated at the tuition rate, but it wasn't the only topic of Monday's meeting. After a few years of discord between the two boards, both elected bodies are taking a proactive approach to communication. In what is envisioned as one of a series of meeting between the two boards, a handful of topics regarding the school were hashed out.
One such discord occurred last year when Sieloff, under the direction of the Board of Selectmen, sent a letter to the tri-district administration asking for the central office to be relocated to the elementary school. Central office is not included in the new Mount Greyock school project because it wouldn't be reimbursed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority. Lanesborough threw out the idea that the office could relocate to there.
"We still think it is reasonable. There should be some space or we can make space," Sieloff said.
However, that move wasn't taken lightly by School Committee members because it bypassed them completely. The committee said it wasn't in the town's purview to offer up the use of the building — that managing and running that building was their responsibility and therefore they should have been included.
"In the configuration, we have at the elementary school, is that possible? No," DiLego said.
On Monday, the two sides got over their differences on that issue, with the Selectmen and Sieloff saying there was an assumption that the letter included the School Committee as well and that it wasn't so much as an offer but starting a conversation.
"We're just shooting ideas off to save money," Goerlach said.
School Budget Talks
The budget has always been a point of contention between the two boards. But both seem to be in agreement with the starting point this year.
"We're hoping the guidance you give to the administration is to be extremely frugal to the degree of coming in as flat as possible," Sieloff said. "If we could come in flat in the next couple of years, that would be a big help."
DiLego said she has already voiced that desire as well in the planning meetings. From the town's perspective, the finances are in the middle of a three-year transition as the cost of the Mount Greylock project starts hitting the books at the same time the assessment value of the Berkshire Mall decreases with the loss of recent stores. Sieloff said that after this period, when both of those costs level out, the town will have a more clear understanding of the financial picture.
Pannesco, however, added that while the focus of the committee can be to come in close to level, that does put the long-term maintenance plans on a back burner. The School Committee has been discussing creating an account to start saving for capital projects for the school, including a new roof. Former interim Superintendent Gordon Noseworthy even crafted a multi-year capital plan.
"That's going to be difficult to do in light of the increases," Pannesco said.
While that discussion didn't evolve much, Sayers did say that in the town's capital plan items like the school roof is already included. While the two sides hadn't come to an agreement about how exactly the planning and saving will be done, both sides were on the same page when recognizing capital repairs as a priority.
"We are thinking about it. It is not like we are not thinking about improvements to the school," Sayers said.
The 45-minute discussion hit a few other topics as well, but none with much sustenance. It ended with an invitation from DiLego for Sieloff and the Board of Selectmen to take an active role in the collective bargaining sessions set to begin soon.
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