Nearly 70 registered voters crammed into the meeting room at Town Hall in New Ashford.
NEW ASHFORD, Mass. — Throughout the winter and spring, the school budget has been a sticky issue.
On Tuesday night, it was decided with sticky notes.
On consecutive paper ballot votes, town meeting voted by a 35-31 margin to keep the school line item in the town budget at the level recommended by the School Committee and, by a 13-vote margin, approved the total $870,054.61 spending plan.
Sixty-nine residents — or 35 percent of the town's 196 registered voters — crammed the Town Hall meeting room to do the town's business.
The most discussed item of business: whether to pay an increased tuition rate to send the town's elementary school-aged children to Lanesborough Elementary School. Town Clerk Lori Trottier made her way through the standing-room only crowd three times to collect secret ballots — recorded on Post-It Notes — before the 90-minute meeting came to a close.
The school budget issue came to a head in January when the Mount Greylock Regional School Transition Committee, following the lead of the Lanesborough Elementary School Committee's spring 2017 decision, voted to raise the tuition rate charged at Lanesborough to a level in line with the per-pupil cost of education at the school, as published by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
After negotiating with the New Ashford School Committee, the Transition Committee decided to offer a phased approach to bring the tuition up to the DESE per-pupil rate over the next three fiscal years. For FY19, that means New Ashford's per pupil rate will go from $8,977 to $12,477, an increase of 39 percent per pupil.
The rate goes to $14,442 next year and in FY21, the town would pay the DESE per-pupil rate.
Select Board member Mark Phelps opened the budget discussion by moving that town cut the education line item in the budget by $13,000, from $620,972 to $607,972.
"To the best of my knowledge, Hancock has given us an offer less than what Lanesborough is asking," Phelps said. "I think we should take Hancock up on its offer."
Cutting the budget would not have done that, exactly. A reduction in the line item would have forced the School Committee either to attempt to reopen negotiations with the newly expanded Mount Greylock Regional School District or find another elementary-school option, like Hancock Elementary.
"The Transition Committee is not going to negotiate with us again," School Committee Chairwoman Brenda Frye told the meeting. "You vote us in as School Committee members. You have to trust us to do our jobs. We have done our due diligence.
"We really feel Lanesborough is the best place for our students at this point."
New Ashford Superintendent Peter Dillon, who also serves as the superintendent for Hancock — as well as Richmond and the Berkshire Hills Regional School District — was asked by voters to talk about the difference between an education at Hancock and one at Lanesborough.
Dillon, stressing that he represents pupils in both schools, said there are differences. Chief among them is size; the smaller elementary school in Hancock is a "loving, supportive community with a real focus on literacy," Dillon said.
"The tradeoff is that the opportunities around music and music education are fewer [in Hancock]," he said. "There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but it is a different experience in Hancock versus Lanesborough."
Dillon also explained that even if the per-pupil rate offered by Hancock is lower, there would be additional costs not reflected in the base tuition rate. New Ashford would end up paying additional tuition money to support pupils on individualized education plans, and it might need to support an aide on the bus to Hancock Elementary.
Dillon said the final budget could not be determined precisely but, in his professional opinion, it would be "a wash," in 2019, with New Ashford paying about the same to send its pupils either to Lanesborough or Hancock.
"The other thing people argue is … there's nothing to say that Hancock couldn't hook us with a lower rate and then raise the tuition in a year or two," Dillon said. "I don't think that's their intention."
School Committee member Jennifer Welch pointed out that while the current agreement offered by the Mount Greylock Transition Committee raises the per-pupil rate at Lanesborough, the town's elementary school-aged population is trending down. And, in fact, barring a big influx of families with young children, the town's tuition bill won't go up in the next couple of years.
More importantly, Welch argued that the town should be investing in elementary school education and, at the very least, be willing to fund it at the same rate it funds middle and high school education.
"This is where the foundation of education begins, in elementary school," Welch said. "I have an eighth-grader doing 11th-grade math [at Mount Greylock] because of the opportunity Lanesborough Elementary School offered."
After the 35-31 vote killed the amendment to trim the school portion of the budget, a second paper ballot passed the entire budget by a margin of 40-27.
Yet another paper ballot was needed to pass a third budget item: phase one of the two-phase process to override the commonwealth's Proposition 2 1/2 in order to fund the town's budget.
Town meeting was asked to approve an additional $70,000 in taxation above the Prop 2 1/2 cap, a move that Select Board member Kenneth McInerney said would have been needed with or without the $13,000 cut proposed to the school budget.
The second phase of the Prop 2 1/2 override comes on May 22, when it will be a ballot question in the annual town election, slated for 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. at Town Hall.
In other business on Tuesday, the town approved two articles related to New Ashford's high-speed broadband initiative. Article 6 enables the Select Board to act as the town's Municipal Light Plant Board (another question that will be repeated on the town election ballot). Article 12 authorized the expenditure of $10,000 from the town's Stabilization Account to purchase a backup generator and air conditioning for a planned broadband equipment installation at Town Hall.
The town also approved two proposed bylaws aimed at protecting town roads.
Chapter IX, Section 11 of the bylaw bans "bulldozers or other equipment with metal cleats or grouzers" on public roads.
Chapter IX, Section 10 prohibits cutting of trees in the public right of way without permission from the tree warden and prohibits "landings" of trees on streets or roadways. It also prohibits "skidders, bulldozers or other log dragging equipment" on public roads, "except rubber-tired equipment, with grouzered tire chains removed, which are being moved to or from an operation site."
Select Board Chairman Jason Jayko told the meeting, "Town roads are getting torn up with heavy equipment."
This story was updated to reflect the fact that a school committee member's comment about population trend referred to the town's K-12 population.
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