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Joe Bergeron, right, leads Tuesday morning's meeting of the district's Finance Subcommittee with members of the Finance Committees of Lanesborough and Williamstown.

Budget Uncertainties Abound for Expanded Mount Greylock District

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Finance Subcommittee of Mount Greylock's Transition Committee sat down Tuesday with members of the finance committees in Williamstown and Lanesborough to explain how the school district's fiscal 2019 budget is being developed.
School officials showed how the formerly three independent schools are being brought into a single spending plan, how costs are are going to be allocated between the district's member towns and how the schools' expenses are being recoded to align with new nomenclature from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
They could not yet show hard numbers for what the district plans to spend.
"This is 1,000 percent draft," Transition Committee Chairman Joe Bergeron said in reference to the placeholder figures that currently populate a spreadsheet for the FY19 budget.
There are too many unknowns at this point to give an accurate picture of the district's funding needs — both on the expense and revenue sides of the ledger. Some of those unknowns are directly related to the compressed time schedule the Transition Committee faces in creating a budget for a district that only came into being at the beginning of the year.
Since Jan. 1, when the former Tri-District fully regionalized as a result of November votes in both towns, district officials have been negotiating with union personnel in all three schools in an effort to align the contracts. Without unified contracts in place, the district cannot say for sure what its salary and benefit expenses will be as of July 1, the beginning of the first fiscal year as one PreK-12 school district.
"The Negotiation Subcommittee has been meeting weekly to finalize the contracts," Bergeron said after Tuesday's morning meeting at the middle-high school. "I have nothing but respect for the work that Dan [Caplinger], Regina [DiLego] and Chris [Dodig] are doing."
Bergeron, Al Terranova and Steven Miller compose the Finance Subcommittee of the Transition Committee, an amalgamation of the three elected school committees that govern Mount Greylock, Williamstown Elementary and Lanesborough Elementary. The Transition Committee has the responsibility for all decisions that affect the schools after June 30, which obviously includes the FY19 budget.
To that end, the full Transition Committee has a couple of decisions on its plate that will impact both expenses and revenues in the coming year.
One issue Bergeron hopes to be resolved at the Transition Committee's Thursday meeting: the 2019 tuition agreements with New Ashford, Hancock and Stamford, Vt.
Since existing tuition agreements with the three independent school districts are null and void with the advent of regionalization, Mount Greylock needs to set new tuition rates with the sending towns.
The Transition Committee has faced political pressure from some in the member towns, including very vocal town officials in Lanesborough, who want to make sure the new tuition agreements reflect the sending town's "fair share" of the cost of education at LES and Mount Greylock. 
Although the LES Committee had put New Ashford on notice last spring about a new policy to bring that school's tuition in line with the DESE-calculated per-pupil rate, a Jan. 2 decision by the Transition Committee to tie the PreK-12 tuition to the DESE figure generated pushback from New Ashford and Hancock.
The latter town, which operates its own elementary school, has in the past dealt with internal opposition to paying what some residents perceived as exorbitant tuition at Mount Greylock for students in grades seven through 12. Hancock already has a tuition agreement in place with neighboring New Lebanon, N.Y., as a potential alternative.
Bergeron said Tuesday that district officials have been in contact with representatives of Hancock and New Ashford (which sends its elementary school-aged children to LES), and he is hopeful the issue can be put to bed at Thursday's meeting.
The committee Thursday also is scheduled to vote on whether the district will continue to participate in the commonwealth's School Choice program — another point of contention for many in the member towns who are concerned about the low state-established rate of compensation to districts who receive School Choice students.
If the committee votes Thursday to participate in School Choice, as the district's three "legacy committees" historically have done, it would take up the question of how many choice slots to open at a subsequent meeting.
The tuition and School Choice revenues are not insignificant.
In FY16, tuition payments from New Ashford for pupils at LES totaled $93,093, according to Lanesborough's Town Report. The FY18 WES budget planned for about $134,000 in School Choice Revenue. At Mount Greylock, the FY18 budget projected about $662,000 from tuition and $662,000 from School Choice.
Getting clarity on the availability of those funds for FY19 will go a long way toward clearing up the revenue side of Mount Greylock's budget.
Expense-wise, in addition to the unknowns that are the union contracts, the Transition Committee will be asked to decide whether to support funding priorities laid out by the district's three principals at the committee's Feb. 8 meeting.
Lanesborough Elementary School Principal Marty McEvoy told the Transition Committee his building's spending plan calls for level staffing and seeks to expand technological learning opportunities, refine the use of the Mystery Science curriculum and align all science curricula to state standards and increase social-emotional learning.
WES Principal Joelle Brookner said her No. 1 priority also is level staffing, but she also is recommending a $150,000 investment in technology to bring Williamstown up to the level of the district's other two schools and $13,500 to restore enrichment programs to the budget. Currently, programs like Lego Robotics, the match club and the school's residency program with Lenox's Shakespeare and Company are funded by the WES Endowment.
Mount Greylock Principal Mary MacDonald said the school's most pressing budget concern is the addition of a school adjustment counsellor, which would be budgeted at between $55,000 and $60,000.
"We have three guidance counsellors and a school psychologist who responsible for testing," MacDonald said. "But mental health and social and emotional wellness are becoming more and more of a concern across the board."
MacDonald also listed several other smaller funding requests, including $5,000 to pay for services of a school resource officer that is currently funded by the sports teams and/or school dances on an as-needed basis, and $15,000 to $20,000 for a new vendor for online learning.
The Transition Committee meets at 6 p.m. Thursday in Mount Greylock's library.

Tags: fiscal 2019,   MGRSD_budget,   

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