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The Finance Committee spent three and a half hours Monday night discussing the proposed budget.

Lanesborough Finance Panel Angry With School Officials

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — The Finance Committee chairman is peeved with the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee for canceling a meeting to discuss the budget.
 
The committee met on Monday with an agenda that included speaking with the School Committee. However, after a testy meeting last week, and with another meeting administrators were attending Monday and a public hearing scheduled for Tuesday, Mount Greylock officials opted to cancel their appearance.
 
"That is very disturbing to me. I don't think it is right that they did not come," Finance Committee Chairman Ray Jones said.
 
Jones says he'll be sending an email to Mount Greylock officials to express his displeasure, and called the move disrespectful. Jones says he's been asking for a meeting with officials since February and last Monday, school officials said they would attend the next Finance Committee meeting.
 
As the chairman of the Finance Committee, Jones felt school officials should have specifically notified him that they would not attend — the School Committee had emailed Town Manager Paul Sieloff about it on Thursday.
 
Jones says if he had known, he would have canceled Monday's meeting. The Finance Committee, however, still spent nearly 3 1/2 hours reviewing the town budget. 
 
"I feel highly insulted and disrespected that the email from Mrs. [interim Superintendent Kimberly] Grady did not come to me, it went to [Sieloff]," Jones said of the cancellation notice.
 
Sieloff said he felt an abrasive meeting last week, when school officials were on hand to talk about the elementary school budget, triggered the change in plans. 
 
"Last week the committee, after the meeting with Finance Committee, they met Wednesday and made a decision that they felt more comfortable meeting at the public hearing," Sieloff said. "My understanding was they were a little concerned about the interplay."
 
Jones had been aggressive last week when talking to school officials, pressing them on recent staffing changes on the administrative level. Both the superintendent and business manager have resigned in recent months from the central office of the tri-district — a shared administration of the Lanesborough, Mount Greylock and Williamstown school districts.
 
"We don't seem to know what is going on," Jones said last week. 
 
The conversation peaked in contention when Jones especially looked at Grady and asked, "how did you get your job?" The question came with some level of insinuation. 
 
School officials, however, said they couldn't speak about why the two administrators left and Grady said she was chosen to fill in for both jobs because of her longstanding history working for the district. Grady had the qualifications so the School Committee asked her to take over on an interim basis. 
 
"That's really the whole scope of what happened with the superintendent," Sieloff said. "This seems to be a comprehensive agreement among everybody."
 
Jones is no stranger to providing criticism to school officials. Prior to being elected to the Finance Committee, he was a frequent and vocal attendee at town meeting, often criticizing the school's management and budgets. 
 
Other recent comments Jones made irritated Town Hall employees when he remarked that they "are lucky to have a job," argued against giving them raises, and pushed for the employees to pay a higher percentage of health-care benefits.
 
The Mount Greylock budget hasn't been approved yet but the version the School Committee is expected to present Tuesday (though an arriving blizzard may cancel it) calls for a $3,167,278 appropriation from Lanesborough. That is $92,489 more than last year, but all of that is attributed to the bills for the construction of the new middle and high school. Lanesborough's capital assessment is going up by $161,092 so Lanesborough's portion for the operating budget is less than last year.
 
In other business, Finance Committee member Ron Tinkham wants to again try to take control of the elementary school's reserve fund.
 
The elementary school's budget includes a $55,000 contingency and Tinkham wants that to be cut and have the town increase its reserves. If the reserve is in the school budget, the School Committee can opt how to spend it. If it is in the town's budget, then the Finance Committee does.
 
"The elementary school has the ability to come back to the town and ask for more money," Tinkham said. "I don't feel it is right to have a contingency of $55,000."
 
The situation is familiar. In 2015, former School Committee member Robert Barton attempted to make a similar change. He had called for a $25,000 reduction to the school's contingency — leaving just $30,000 — and put that into the town's budget. Town meeting voters overwhelmingly rejected that move and voted to fully fund the school's contingency.
 
The Finance Committee did not take a stance on the issue Monday night. The committee continued discussion of yet another issue Tinkham has with the elementary school — tuition and choice. 
 
Tinkham and Jones are also looking to "do something" to force the School Committee to raise tuition rates. The Finance Committee is asking to meet with the Board of Selectmen to discussion options to force such a change. 
 
"I really believe that the main rub, the condition I am concerned with, is the taxpayers supplementing the cost of kids who don't belong to us," Tinkham said. "We need to somehow get their attention and have them do the right thing."
 
The Finance Committee is torn on that one, with Jones and Tinkham believing the town should dramatically increase tuition rates and eliminate school choice. That, however, would have no impact on the school's budget since it neither affects operations; school officials see the funds from choice and tuition as revenue it wouldn't otherwise have.
 
"If your costs don't change and you lose revenue, then you have an increase," Finance Committee member Stephen Wentworth said.
 
It is estimated that about $90,000 is brought into the town's coffers — not the school's — through tuition. There are 17 school-choice students expected to be enrolled in the coming year and nine tuition. The school has a total of 206 students. The current tuition contract as not expired and the school's legal counsel has ruled that any changes need to be made by the School Committee.
 
But the Finance Committee continues to push for the changes and the Selectmen are even proposing a non-binding warrant article for voters to send a message to school officials to raise the rates. Tinkham threatened not to support the elementary school budget over the issue.
 
The discussion on the two programs have been ongoing for years. Some believe that the use of tuition and choice is a way to bring in revenue by filling classrooms the town is already paying to operate. Others say the programs allow other towns to get the same education at a much more inexpensive cost.
 
The issue was the main focus at the Finance Committee's meeting with the elementary school last week. The Elementary School is proposing a budget that calls for a zero increase in appropriations from the town. 

Tags: lanesborough_budget,   school choice,   tuition,   

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