WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The chairman of the Williamstown School Committee hopes a Saturday morning budget workshop will provide more interaction with the public ahead of next week's more formal budget presentations.
The School Committee will hold its public hearing on the fiscal 2018 budget on Tuesday evening and is scheduled to vote a final budget request to the town later that evening. If all goes well, the district will make its presentation to the town's Finance Committee on Wednesday, March 22, likely the last public discussion of the spending plan before the May 16 Annual Town Meeting.
Before next week's hearings, the committee will hold an informal session on Saturday at 9 a.m. in the school cafeteria. It is model that has been used in other school districts but the first time it will be tried in Williamstown.
"It's a chance for School Committee members and the public to talk, which the public comment period at a meeting doesn't really allow," Bergeron said prior to a Thursday morning meeting of the School Committee's Finance Subcommittee.
That subcommittee, Bergeron and Dan Caplinger, took a final pass at the proposed budget, which calls for a 3.64 percent increase in the appropriation to the town over FY17.
That is a return to a level near where the School Committee thought it would be in mid-February and a decline from the 4.12 percent hike cited at the committee's March 1 meeting.
The main reason for the adjustment is that the district has learned of an additional retirement coming at the end of the school year, Bergeron said.
The overall budget is up 2.63 percent from FY17, from $6.6 million to $6.8 million.
The reason the percentage increase in the town appropriation is higher is that the School Committee has made it a priority to rely less on revenue from school choice and move more of its operating expenses into the appropriated budget.
The district anticipates receiving about $155,000 in school choice revenue in fiscal 2018, and has allocated $133,909 of the operating budget against that revenue.
"That's really just a modest attempt to not put too much into the operating budget but still move the [reserve account's] trajectory upward," Bergeron said.
School choice revenue is the only money that school committees are allowed to hold in reserve in case of unexpected expenses.
As recently as 2012, the district's school choice account had a balance of $450,000, Bergeron said on Thursday. But for years, the district applied the reserve account toward its operating expenses, spending down the rainy day fund.
"This year, we entered the year with $50,000," Bergeron said.
Former Superintendent Douglas Dias, whose tenure ended abruptly in October, advocated strongly last year for rebuilding those reserves, even if it meant higher assessments to the town.
The main budget battle during Dias' reign, however, revolved around his decision to change the school's Side-By-Side special education preschool program. The move to end the full-day program and run just half-day sections in the preschool sparked months of debate and, ultimately, a successful, albeit symbolic, protest vote on the floor of town meeting.
The town Finance Committee's liaison to the School Committee attended Thursday's finance subcommittee meeting and asked why she had not heard the same sort of rancor this winter about Side-By-Side.
"The needs of the children are being met with the services we have in place," interim Superintendent Kimberley Grady said.
The Finance Committee's Susan Clarke pressed the point, noting that a number of people objected to the decision last year, including Bergeron, one of several people who ran for School Committee on the argument that full-day preschool should be restored.
"The current budget doesn't mean [the issue] doesn't exist in anybody's mind, but I don't think there's room to go in that direction," Bergeron said.
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