Transition Committee members Carolyn Greene and Joe Bergeron listen to public comment at the start of Thursday's meeting.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Transition Committee on Thursday decided to continue its dialogue with representatives from the towns of Hancock and New Ashford about the tuition rate the towns would pay to send students to Lanesborough Elementary School and Mount Greylock Regional School in the 2018-19 school year.
Shaker Mountain School Union 70 Superintendent Peter Dillon, Hancock School Committee Chairman Alex Kastrinakis and a member of the New Ashford Select Board addressed the Transition Committee, which is responsible for the fiscal 2019 finances of the newly expanded PreK-12 district until November's election.
Last month, the Transition Committee voted to set the FY19 tuition rate for its three schools at $17,843 — a 23 percent increase for Mount Greylock, which accepts tuition students from Hancock, New Ashford and Stamford, Vt. New Ashford, which does not have an elementary school, tuitions its K-6 pupils into Lanesborough Elementary School, where the School Committee signaled last year its intent to raise the FY19 tuition to the per-pupil rate published by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Since the fall's votes in Lanesborough and Williamstown to fully regionalize the Mount Greylock district, the LES Committee is no longer responsible for decisions that impact the school after July 1, 2018, which is why the Transition Committee is charged with setting a tuition rate.
After voting to raise tuition at all three of its schools (Williamstown Elementary has a negligible number of tuition pupils in any given year) at its Jan. 2 meeting, the Transition Committee on Jan. 18 discussed reconsidering the number and phasing in the tuition increase over a couple of years.
That sparked responses from officials in Lanesborough, who shared their displeasure with the Transition Committee on Thursday. That displeasure — previously expressed at a Lanesborough Finance Committee meeting — in turn brought out parents from New Ashford and Lanesborough who encouraged the Transition Committee to take a more measured approach to the tuition question.
Lanesborough Town Manager Paul Sieloff told the committee that the DESE per-student average would be the "absolute minimum" he would recommend to the committee because that number does not take into account the capital cost of the current addition/renovation project at Mount Greylock. Transition Committee Chairman Joe Bergeron later clarified for his colleagues that the district's counsel has advised that capital costs are not part of tuition agreements between school districts and towns.
"The [Lanesborough Board of Selectmen] and Finance Committee have felt very strongly for a long time that tuition charges have been very low and don't represent the true cost to the school district and the taxpayers of Williamstown and Lanesborough," Sieloff said. "Basic fairness says we have to increase the amount as soon as possible. I would argue this is a fair rate for [New Ashford and Hancock]."
Lanesborough Finance Committee Chairman Ray Jones echoed that sentiment and told the Transition Committee that the current tax rates in New Ashford and Hancock are far below Lanesborough's — in the latter case, Lanesborough's rate is seven times Hancock's.
"You can live in Hancock and get the same benefits and pay that much less money," Jones said. "It's not right."
Jones said that school officials told town officials they would bring the tuition rate in line with the DESE per-student cost, and the town expects the district to honor that commitment.
"If someone says to us, 'We're going to do this,' we expect you to honor it," Jones said. "Your word is your word. Don't back out on your word.
"How can someone from New Ashford or Hancock come in and say it's not fair? I just proved it's not too expensive. They've gotten a bargain for too long. I'd charge them a premium because we're the highest ranking school in the area. They're not paying a premium. They're not even paying a fair price. It's not fair what's going on.
"The free ride for these other towns has to end."
Dillon, whom the Transition Committee invited to the meeting, told the panel he understands the issue from both sides — serving as superintendent for Hancock and New Ashford, which tuition their students out and for Berkshire Hills, which accepts tuition students into its South County schools.
"Our students and families are very much appreciative of their access to wonderful educational opportunities," Dillon said. "That being said, our communities and school committees feel the increase is too much, too soon. The increase at Lanesborough is about $9,000 per pupil. At Mount Greylock, it's about $4,700 per student.
"I believe there is a misconception about true cost and 'fair share.' I'd like to talk about marginal costs. In most grades at Lanesborough, you're getting one or two kids per grade. That school already hired a teacher who would be teaching 15 kids, and you're getting two kids from us. I would argue the 'fair share' argument is flawed."
Dillon said his experience at Monument Mountain Regional High School tells him that the revenue from School Choice and tuition students sprinkled among several classes of resident students helps the school.
"Extra kids give our schools enhanced diversity and a critical mass for classes," Dillon said. "At the high school, it allows us to run AP courses we otherwise might not.
"We realize that there's pressure to raise the tuition. We'd like to see it phased in."
A member of New Ashford's Select Board, who addressed the committee from his seat at the back of the meeting room, told the Transition Committee education already represents 75 percent of the town's budget, implying that a one-year increase of the magnitude the district voted on Jan. 2 could push the town into a Proposition 2 1/2 override.
New Ashford serves its children with what is called a "non-operating school district," meaning it has to execute tuition agreements with nearby schools for K-12 education.
In answer to a question from Transition Committee member Carolyn Greene, Dillon said there are options for both Hancock and New Ashford if either towns' taxpayers balk at the higher tuition rate for the Mount Greylock district. Hancock has a tuition agreement and already sends some students to New Lebanon High School in New York. New Ashford's children could end up at Hancock Elementary, North Adams or Pittsfield Public Schools.
Transition Committee member and LES Committee Chairwoman Regina DiLego pressed Dillon about why "nobody protested," back when her committee passed a policy last spring that pegged Lanesborough Elementary School tuition to the DESE per-pupil rate.
Dillon said he was under the impression that tuitions were a matter of negotiation between towns and school districts and said that communication between the school union and the district "could be significantly better."
Regardless, Dillon said that pushing Hancock and New Ashford to the point where their school budgets could fail at town meeting is not the solution.
"The prospect of us collectively playing 'financial chicken' is terrifying," Dillon said. "At the end of the day, it would really mess up kids' lives. But the impact on the receiving schools would be quite significant."
Lanesborough parent Michelle Johnson alluded to the latter point in comments made at the start of the meeting.
"I'm a little concerned about the cost to the Town of Lanesborough if we push this edict [to raise the tuition all at once] through," Johnson said. "If we lose New Ashford and Hancock students, the revenue goes with them, and I have concerns the towns won't be able to pony up the money to make up the difference.
"If they leave, what will be the hole in the budget? … Let's say it's 100 grand. What does the School Committee plan to do to make up the difference? Hopefully, the towns will be able to make up the difference."
The idea of "messing up kids' lives" was emphasized by a pair of Lanesborough parents. They told the committee that the uncertainty over whether their children will be able to continue at Lanesborough Elementary and Mount Greylock already is impacting their families.
"It's a huge jump for our town to make this request, and I can't imagine telling my children they can't continue at Lanesborough next year," said Michelle Filiault, who told the committee she is the mother of the only New Ashford pupils in LES' second and fifth grades.
"Please take this into consideration. These are children. These are people. They have no choice in where we bought our homes and what the tax rate is."
Jeffrey Welch, who is a teacher at Mount Greylock, resident of New Ashford and parent of children at LES and Mount Greylock, told the committee that the conversation around tuition rates already has worked its way into the halls of the middle-high school, where students from New Ashford are being told they don't belong because their parents don't pay their "fair share."
"These are student who have represented the school at statewide and district leadership conventions," Welch said. "They serve on athletic teams that are regularly cited for sportsmanship.
Shaker Mountain School Union 70 Superintendent Peter Dillon, left, and Hancock School Committee Chairman Alex Kastrinakis.
"Students should not be used as pawns in a real or imagined grudge match over tax rates. I'm here to urge you think of the children who come to Williamstown-Lanesborough public schools from surrounding towns as children, as people."
After considering some of its options — including a two-year phase-in and leaving the Jan. 2 decision in tact — the Transition Committee opted to authorize Bergeron and Chris Dodig to continue the conversation with the sending towns with the expectation that New Ashford and Hancock bring an offer to the negotiating table.
"I think if we vote on something, it should be to name someone to have more conversations with [Hancock and New Ashford] so we can have a formal proposal that we can support, that town officials in both towns can support, so we're not negotiating with ourselves," Transition Committee member Dan Caplinger said. "I can do the math and figure out the midpoints [between the current tuition and the DESE per student rate]. But I haven't heard anything that gives me the 100 percent I'd want that what we'd propose as an alternative would get any more political support in the two [sending] towns."
Dillon thanked the committee for the opportunity to continue the dialogue and promised to have a proposal "in an accelerated way."
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