LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — Town Manager Paul Sieloff believes the school's proposed budget is still too much.
Sieloff said he believes the town's assessment for the now regionalized school district should be about $200,000 less. Particularly, he said the health insurance estimate is about $100,000 too high and he wants the tuition for New Ashford to be factored into the equation.
"Despite the calculations, you have, that you are about $200,000 over where you should be," Sieloff told Mount Greylock Regional School District officials on Monday.
He later added that the budgeting hawking among town officials "isn't an academic exercise when we express our concerns about the cost of the assessment. These are real dollars we are working our way through."
The latter of those two concerns has been an ongoing issue. Lanesborough had sought to increase the tuition fees for students from New Ashford. But as the elementary school became part of the district, the Transition Committee was left to decide that. It attempted to keep the tuition rate at the per-pupil expenditure costs set by the Department of Secondary and Elementary School Education as Lanesborough had voted in the past but New Ashford officials voiced concern about the sharp increase.
After negotiations, ultimately, the Mount Greylock Transition Committee approved an agreement that will slowly ramp up the rate over three years. But, that agreement has to be approved by New Ashford at town meeting so Superintendent Kimberly Grady didn't factor that revenue into the budget until there was a certainty.
"There is too much concern from the New Ashford side of things for me to confidently put in $112,000 to reduce the assessment to Lanesborough," Grady said.
To make up for it, Grady said the proposed budget essentially loots the school's reserves, to the tune of $155,000, to keep the town's contribution toward Lanesborough Elementary School flat. Grady said this will be the fourth consecutive year the town's contribution for the elementary school has remained flat.
"That leaves us with very few resources," Grady said. "We're using a lot of school choice to offset not having tuition in the budget."
Should New Ashford approve the agreement, Grady said that would replenish the reserves.
But Sieloff believes that those negotiating the increase reached a fair compromise for all parties and it will be approved. He'd like to see the money go back to the town of Lanesborough. He said the available school choice funds is sufficient for a reserve. Grady countered by saying the current school choice balance still has bills pending that have been subtracted and that fund too will be low.
The schools have any type of reserves has been a longstanding battle between multiple boards of selectmen over the years. Town officials have been resistant to providing much for backup spending and have pushed to have control over any additional spending throughout the year. Multiple times efforts to build reserve accounts have been rebuffed by town officials.
The other aspect is the health insurance to which Grady said may be resolved before town meeting. The budget went to a hearing with $763,875 for those benefits. The Transition Committee passed that amount and that's what is being proposed by the towns.
However, since then, school and town officials have worked through the numbers more and that could drop to around $665,000. The health insurance piece is by far the most difficult aspect the town and the district has had when it comes to the regionalization process.
Grady said the Transition Committee would have to adjust that number. But, that new number is still somewhat of a moving target and the district is waiting until a final number is agreed upon to make any changes.
The budget process and the town's ability to track the changes has been an exhaustive process because of the merging of three school districts. The district has essentially had to revamp its entire budget process and budget presentation. This year because of the changes, school officials also attempted to categorize the spending specifically to each town in the new budget, showing a history to allow the most complete "apples to apples" comparison.
"The two towns did the books differently over the years. This is one of the many headaches," said School Committee member Steven Miller.
Overall the budget calls for a Lanesborough assessment of $5,788,394. While that is a $2.6 million increase, that shouldn't be too alarming because the assessment now includes Lanesborough Elementary School, which had been budgeted separately before. That breaks down to $2,515,308 for Lanesborough Elementary, for a decrease of .86 percent and $3,273,05 for Mount Greylock, an increase of 3.34 percent, most of which is driven by the Mount Greylock building project.
Town officials are still working through the numbers but praised the district's work in merging the accounts.
"I recognize that. I've been through this process and it is very difficult," Finance Committee member Ronald Tinkham said.
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