WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Williamstown Elementary School budget again has ticked upward, the School Committee learned on Wednesday night.
With three weeks left before the district presents its fiscal 2018 budget request to the town's Finance Committee, Interim Superintendent Kim Grady and School Committee Chairman Joe Bergeron told the committee that the latest iteration of the spending plan sees the appropriation to the town up by 4.12 percent from FY17.
The current total proposed appropriation to the town is $6.4 million, up $253,218 from the $6.1 million FY17 appropriation.
That is still an increase of less than the "hair under 5 percent" Bergeron warned of back in January but is more than the 3.5 percent hike the elementary school district contemplated as recently as Feb. 15 and was reported informally to the town's Finance Committee later that night.
Bergeron said there are several reasons why the school's appropriated budget has crept upward.
"Part of that is shifting spending from school choice [revenue] into the appropriated budget so we're not spending down a school-choice reserve we don't have, and part of that is that there are actuals that have been tucked into school choice in the past," Bergeron said. "Part three is contractual increases and trying to avoid having to decrease staff. Another portion is educational priorities.
"The remainder are student needs we need to meet that trigger slightly higher costs next year versus the costs we see this year. Those are not coming out of the budget."
At the same time, the district's anticipated revenue from school choice revenue and pre-kindergarten tuition have dropped since that Feb. 15 meeting by $18,000 and $7,000, respectively, Bergeron reported on Wednesday night.
And the district's FY17 actual expenses, or "actuals," are now projected to be $47,000 higher than the numbers used in the Feb. 15 meeting. That includes $19,000 in an unanticipated increase in payments to the county retirement system and substitute teacher/paraprofessional expenses that are running $13,000 higher than the numbers used in calculating the Feb. 15 budget projections.
For the most part, school officials say the FY18 spending plan is a level-funded budget with no significant new spending. There are a couple of exceptions that the School Committee has, to date, supported: making the school's assistant principal a full-time position and purchasing new textbooks.
"We're upgrading our reading program and obtaining materials to support our transition to the new science standard," Principal Joelle Brookner told the committee on Wednesday. "That would not be a yearly increase. The majority of that would be a one-time increase to purchase new teacher's manuals, which are more expensive. You won't see that kind of number in FY19."
Likewise, the district's push to stop relying on school choice revenue to fund operating costs — an initiative begun under former Superintendent Douglas Dias — has driven appropriation increases the last two funding cycles. Bergeron indicated that now that the appropriated budget more accurately reflects the cost of education, that upward pressure should ease.
"This is probably not a budget year when we're going to walk into Town Hall and say 2.5 percent is all we're asking for," Bergeron said. "The question can and should be: 'Are you going to always ask for 4.1 percent?' And the answer is no.
"If we already made sure we're mapping the actuals we know exist, we don't need to bump it up in FY19 to meet costs we can't pay for out of school choice."
School districts in Massachusetts receive about $5,000 per year for each non-resident student enrolled under the commonwealth's school choice program. Although that figure is far below the cost per pupil, Williamstown Elementary historically has accepted school choice pupils to help to help fill empty seats in classrooms.
In general, the district gets more pupils "choicing in" from neighboring communities than it sees leaving to attend other area elementary schools.
The revenue is outside of the appropriated budget, i.e. what the district receives from local property taxes.
School districts are allowed to carry reserve funds — essentially surplus or "rainy day" funds — generated by school choice revenue, and the school did just that as recently as five years ago, when its reserve account was more than $300,000. This year's carryover was about $38,000.
Toward the end of Wednesday's three-hour School Committee meeting, Bergeron highlighted the importance of reserve accounts during a discussion of a line-item increase for special education. Grady, who was the district's director of pupil personnel services before her job title was changed to assistant superintendent (and currently interim superintendent) was explaining that based on her expectation of student needs, she added $65,105 to the line item for out-of-district placement.
"If we don't need to use it, great … but I will feel safer knowing I have funds in the budget to meet the needs of students," Grady said. "Our reserves have become incredibly low, and I needed to make sure we have funds."
"School choice has traditionally been a way to absorb some of the unexpected costs to educate a student or a couple of students [with special needs]," Bergeron said. "That is the primary reason, for me, to have school choice funds or to have a fund from year to year that can be carried over.
"[The SPED budget] is what has true variability. Other things, we can predict better and can be more conservative in how we budget, but that's an area where you may have a $50,000 or $60,000 expense we didn't anticipate. When people say, 'Why do you need a reserve?' that's an area where you need a release valve."
The School Committee's Finance Subcommittee, which consists of Bergeron and Dan Caplinger, is scheduled to take another look at the budget on Thursday, March 16, at the elementary school.
The committee will hold its annual public hearing on the FY18 budget on Tuesday, March 21, at 6 p.m., prior to its 7 p.m. business meeting, at the elementary school. The next night, the district is scheduled to present its budget to the town Finance Committee at Town Hall.
In the meantime, Bergeron suggested on Wednesday that the committee hold a workshop or public listening session to invite public comments and questions — perhaps during the March 16 subcommittee meeting or at another time and place prior to the March 21 hearing.
"I feel as though it would be a chance for us all to be a group of parents in a room talking about these issues," Bergeron said. "The very ready answer will probably be, ‘I cannot answer that question definitively, but I'll go and find the answer.' "
Bergeron said Wednesday night he would survey the School Committee members by email and try to find a date and time that would work to hold the informal public forum.
In other business on Wednesday, the committee:
• Approved adding eight additional school choice slots for the 2017-18 academic year: four in kindergarten, three in first grade and one in fourth grade. Brookner said those recommendations take into account class sizes at Lanesborough Elementary School and the sizes of classes that ultimately will matriculate up to Mount Greylock Regional School, which has identified 92 as an ideal class size for classes entering the renovated junior-senior high school. The eight slots will help balance the six school choice students graduating in this year's sixth-grade class. This year, the school has 34 school choice pupils.
• Approved the job description for a food service director position to be shared with Mount Greylock. The new position replaces a retiring cafeteria manager and eliminates a part-time bookkeeper post shared by the two schools. The administration asked for the change to ensure that the cafeterias at the two schools are managed by someone with the qualifications currently required under the law.
• Discussed a policy change that will allow the school to provide free milk to students eligible for free and reduced lunches. Currently, those students cannot receive free milk under the federal program if they bring a bagged lunch from home. "What I learned from working with the cafeteria workers and [Brookner] is that free or reduced lunch means the whole meal," Grady told the committee. "If you're on free or reduced lunch and just want the milk, you're required to pay for it."
• Learned that the district’s FY18 budget shows a reduction in the cost of bus transportation because WES is cutting from five bus routes to four. “We have done a thorough analysis of bus ridership and done a thorough look at the bus routes, and we’re confident we can reduce to four buses,” Brookner said. She cited low ridership numbers as well as current routes that have buses crossing paths and sometimes passing the same house two or three times. Officials predict the new routes may add at most 10 minutes to the rides of those children who are affected; the change does not affect the bus to South Williamstown.
• Looked at a school calendar for next year that would set the first student day at Sept. 5 and have a projected final day (barring snow days) of June 15. Brookner said the calendar would align with those at Mount Greylock, where the teachers' contract prohibits starting school before Labor Day, and Lanesborough Elementary. School Committee member John Skavlem urged the district to consider eliminating the February vacation week in the future considering how snow days (this year there have been five) push the school year closer and closer to the end of June.
• Encouraged families with children who will enter kindergarten in the fall to register March 8 and 9 at the school. The school is hoping to avoid last-minute registrations in August that could, at worst, force it to open an additional classroom it does not anticipate.
• Heard from Brookner that the 2017 Renzi Award for citizenship honoring former teacher and administrator Helen Renzi will be given on Friday to sixth-graders Annabelle Art, Lucy Igoe, Krish Sharma and Jacob Stokes. "It's not a recognition for academics or anything else," Brookner said. "It's an award for children who go above and beyond — reaching out to others and being incredibly good friends."
This story was updated on Friday, March 3, to clarify the impact of the planned change in bus routes.
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