WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Mount Greylock Regional School officials Wednesday trumpeted a fiscal 2018 budget proposal that shows no increase in member towns' appropriations related to the school's operating costs.
Williamstown and Lanesborough will be delivered higher assessments, but the increase is due entirely to the bond payment on the addition/renovation project approved in debt exclusion votes in both towns in early 2016.
On Wednesday night, the Mount Greylock School Committee held its public hearing on the FY18 budget.
The bad news is that the district is assessing Lanesborough at $3.2 million and Williamstown at $6.4 million.
The former represents a $92,500 increase from FY17, a hike of about 3 percent. The latter, Williamstown's share, is up by about $412,000, or about 6.9 percent.
But Principal Mary MacDonald and Interim Superintendent Kimberley Grady emphasized that the assessments to the towns for the regular operating expenses only — labor, utilities, supplies, etc. — is up by the negligible amount of $138 on a $7.8 million combined "ask."
In fact, if not for the payment on the bond, Mount Greylock would be seeking 2.6 percent less money from Lanesborough and about 1.3 percent more from Williamstown than it did for the current year's budget.
"So without the building project, we'd have a negative assessment for Lanesborough and a 1.3 percent increase to Williamstown?" asked committee member Carolyne Greene. "That's stunning."
"And we've been able to bring things back into the budget that we've lost over the years and still have those numbers," Grady replied.
The total FY18 budget is $13.5 million for the junior-senior high school. That is an increase of 5.4 percent over FY17. That number will be covered mostly by the $9.6 million assessment to the town but also includes revenue from state aid, grants and other sources outside the district.
The gross operating budget — all of the money spent outside of the building project — is up by 1.6 percent, from $11.5 million in the current year to $11.7 million for FY18.
The capital budget — i.e., the payment on the 29-year bond for the district's share of the building project — is up by nearly 40 percent, from $1.3 million this year to $1.8 million in FY18.
School Committee member Steven Miller asked whether the district's relatively flat operating budget is mostly because of Berkshire Health Group moving public employees to a deductible-based health insurance plan. Grady said that was one driver.
"There was a flat premium for us this year," she said. "We don't know where that will be in years to come."
The district also has seen reductions in its costs for special education from students aging out of programs, and the FY18 spending plan uses $245,000 from the district's "excess and deficiency" account — the school's equivalent of a municipal "free cash" account.
The current year's budget used just $100,000 from that account. The $145,000 increase helps reduce the assessments to the towns and it prevents the district from exceeding the statutory limit on the amount it can hold in reserve. About 1.8 percent of the total $13.5 million budget is being funded by E&D; last year, the reserve fund accounted for .8 percent of the budget.
"We're in a position where our E&D is at the ceiling," Grady told the School Committee. "We can't peak, so we're drawing down from it. This year puts us in a good, safe place."
In response to a question from the floor, officials explained that if the E&D account does exceed the maximum allowable amount, the excess is distributed back to the member towns.
"In this case, it also goes back to the towns because we're using to offset our operating budget," MacDonald said. "We're not using it to buy fancy things."
The most notable increases in the FY18 budget are the replacement of a math teacher position that previously was cut and the addition of a wellness teacher position. Both moves were previously discussed and explained to the School Committee as the budget was being constructed.
On Wednesday, the committee thanked MacDonald, Grady and their staff for a budget that is on time and relatively flat and which comes during a time when the district lacks a business manager and a permanent superintendent.
School Committee Chairwoman Sheila Hebert also made an opening statement at the start of the public hearing to acknowledge the work of Grady, who stepped up from her role as assistant superintendent in the fall to serve as interim superintendent upon the abrupt departure of Douglas Dias.
"The school district remains committed to working cooperatively with both towns with mutual respect," Hebert said.
Hebert, a resident of Lanesborough, did not specifically refer to the personal attack Grady received during a Lanesborough Finance Committee meeting, but coming on the heels of that incident, the context was clear.
"Superintendent is not a political role," Hebert continued. "It is a role of seeing to the educational needs of the students. Kim has made sure we had a budget on time for public hearings while supporting principals in all three schools and making sure the needs of the students are met.
"The School Committee remains confident that the needs of the district are being met."
In other business on Wednesday, the School Committee heard an update on the district's progress in figuring out how to allocate a capital endowment from Williams College and discussed Mount Greylock's efforts to prepare for a possible October vote on inviting Williamstown Elementary School and Lanesborough Elementary School into the district.
Speaking for committee member Chris Dodig, who did not attend Wednesday's meeting, Greene reported to her colleagues that they can expect recommendations from the architect the district hired to study options for the $5 million endowment starting in May or June.
Greene also reported that the district has started to receive financial analysis of a potential consolidation of the K-6 elementary school districts into the Grades 7-12 district at Mount Greylock.
The good news is that the expanded district likely would not see any reduction in its Chapter 70 aid from the commonwealth and would see a bump in its regional transportation aid (single-town school districts, like Williamstown and Lanesborough, do not receive state aid for transportation). In addition, an expanded district would receive a short-term "bonus" aid that Massachusetts offers as an incentive to regionalize, Greene said.
What is unknown and still being studied is the fiscal impact of bringing all three district's employee contracts into alignment.
"There's an assumption that's incorrect that everyone jumps to the highest contract," Greene said. "But what is true is that no one can go down from where they are. We have time to bring everybody into one grid."
Greene said the district does not expect to save big bucks from full regionalization. But what it would do is preserve the savings the two towns currently realize from the Tri-District agreement that shares the cost of central administration.
"We've saved approximately $400,000 a year by combining our central administrations," Greene said.
The district studied full regionalization back in 2013, and the report of the Regional District Amendment Committee is available on the Tri-District website, www.wlschools.org. The report includes not only the financial impact but also the educational benefit of full regionalization.
The Mount Greylock School Committee was on the verge of putting the regionalization questions to voters in both member towns when the district was accepted into the Massachusetts School Building Authority process. The committee decided to "back burner" the regionalization question and focus on the building project, which now is well under way.
Greene noted that some the material — principally the financials but potentially other items — may need to be updated from the 2013 RDAC report.
She also called on her colleagues to help with the public outreach effort that would be needed in advance of an October special town meeting in each member town.
"There were a lot of outreach meetings in ," Greene said. "It will be important to hear the concerns in the air right now as opposed to what was being articulated then. But it also will be important to make clear that we need this, educationally, and we need it financially, not because of new money we're going to save but because we need to be able to hire good people [at the Tri-District office].
"I would encourage us to make a big push for this first. And if we can't sway people, we'll look for alternatives to the current structure."
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