WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Williamstown is not at the point where people are calling for the defeat of the school budget.
In fact, last spring, the loudest voices prior to annual town meeting were calling for more spending on public education.
But this winter, as town officials hear the budgets from Williamstown Elementary School and Mount Greylock Regional School — and in particular the elementary school — questions are being asked about the direction of those budgets.
Mount Greylock's budget is looking to be up by about 5 percent, but that increase is due entirely to the bond payment for the building project Williamstown voters OKed by a margin of 2,226 to 351 (84 percent).
Williamstown Elementary's assessment to the town is projected to be going up by about 3.5 percent — more than the 2.5 percent hoped for at Town Hall.
The increase is not because of any new programs or discretionary spending decisions made during this budget cycle. Rather, the hike is the result of previously negotiated contracts with the elementary school's three bargaining units — contracts that expire at the end of the 2017-18 academic year.
Members of the town's Finance Committee and Board of Selectmen have expressed concern about the cost of education. The Fin Comm decided at its most recent meeting to request a joint meeting with the school committees to discuss the issue, and a recent Wednesday morning budget planning session, one of the Selectmen noted that Williamstown's teachers are "in the top 10 to 15 percent wage wise in the state."
When another member of the Selectmen replied that means, "Some of them can actually afford Williamstown," alluding to the town's high cost of living, a third member said the town's cost of living is not in the top 10 percent of municipalities in the commonwealth, and that that honor belongs to towns in eastern Mass.
Those assertions are likely to be heard again in the current budget season and beyond, so iBerkshires.com took a look at some of the numbers.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reports average teacher salary by school district, and according to that list, Williamstown is not in the top 15 percent statewide, not even close. In fact, it ranks 198th on a list of 323 school districts, which puts it in the 61st percentile.
However, it is tough to make apples-to-apples comparisons across school districts because districts like Mount Greylock and McCann Technical School, which are 7-12 and 9-12, respectively, appear to be Berkshire County outliers because secondary school teachers tend to make more money.
The same goes for the highest paid teachers on the list, at Concord-Carlisle, a 9-12 district in the Boston suburbs.
Many of the state's districts are multi-school regional districts that report salaries for teachers pre-K through 12, like Lenox, the first multi-school Berkshire County district on the list, which checks in at 174th.
At the other end of the spectrum are elementary school-only districts, like Williamstown, Clarksburg, Lanesborough, Savoy, Hancock and Florida. All but Williamstown on that list rank near the bottom statewide with Florida checking in at 322nd of 323 school districts reporting. And the 323rd, Gosnold on Cape Cod, is a true outlier — a district with two teachers and a reported enrollment of two students in Grades 4 and 5 for the 2014-15 academic year.
The highest paid teachers in Berkshire County are at the pre-K-through-Grade 8 Richmond Consolidated School, the only Berkshire County district even close to the top 10.
Otherwise, the highest-paid districts are clustered in eastern Mass, as the recent Selectmen discussion hints they should be. Of the top 20 on the list, only Richmond and Whately (an elementary school with seven teachers in South Deerfield) are west of I-495.
As for the cost-of-living question, that is even trickier to assess on an apples-to-apples basis because cost of living measurements themselves are difficult to nail down and compare throughout the entire commonwealth.
On the chart here, those median household incomes are reported in parentheses for the host community of each school district (i.e. Williamstown for the two-town Mount Greylock Regional School District, Dalton for Central Berkshire or Cheshire for Adams-Cheshire).
As noted in the chart, in at least one Berkshire County regional district, Adams-Cheshire, there is a wide disparity between the two towns of a district and, in fact, the larger of the two towns has a significantly lower median household income, but for consistency's sake, Cheshire, the district's home town, is listed in the chart.
The column at the right shows how the average teacher salary, as reported by DESE, compares with the median household income, as derived from the U.S. Census.
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