Public Official Removed from Contentious Lanesborough Town Meeting
The committee that governs the recently expanded PreK-12 school district needed to make an amendment on the floor of the meeting to bring the town budget in line with the assessment made to the town. Lanesborough's Finance Committee had reduced the assessment by $112,000 in the budget it sent to the meeting.
Finance Chairman Ray Jones strenuously defended the lower dollar figure, setting off a confrontation with longtime Moderator Rob Reilly. Reilly put an end to the dispute by asking the police officers present to remove Jones.
Shortly thereafter, voters approved the amendment to raise the line item for the Mount Greylock district by $112,000 on a vote of 43-27.
Jones took the floor twice to object to the idea of allocating more local tax dollars to the school district. The first time, focusing on the fact that the town's cost of education has increased by "close to a million dollars" in the last few years, when the building project at Mount Greylock is taken into account.
"That's a lot of money," Jones said. "Some of these things are unsustainable."
The second time, Jones' comments focused on oft-expressed concern that Lanesborough taxpayers are made to "subsidize" the education of New Ashford children who attend Lanesborough Elementary School and Mount Greylock under a tuition agreement.
It was during those comments that Jones raised his voice and was asked by Reilly to resume his seat.
"He just was being terrifically loud and seemed to be headed way beyond what was reasonable behavior," Reilly said after the meeting. "He walked by me [on the way back to his seat] and his mouth kept going."
That is when Reilly asked for the officers, including Police Chief Timothy Sorrell, to step to the front of the school gymnasium and escort Jones from the room.
Jones protested that Reilly had too much power. He suggested that the question of his removal should be put to a vote of the residents in the room.
After Sorrell informed Jones that the meeting belongs to the moderator and that Jones would be arrested if he did not comply, Jones left with the two officers.
A moment later, Selectmen John Goerlach and Henry Sayers got up and left the room as well.
Jones' point about the New Ashford tuition students was central to the question of the $112,000 budget gap.
That is the amount that the Mount Greylock district expects to receive in tuition payments for pupils who attend LES in the fall under a recently increased tuition agreement with New Ashford. The Transition Committee formed its budget this winter against a backdrop of uncertainty about whether New Ashford voters would approve their town's budget with the increased tuition rate factored in.
In the end, the New Ashford residents did so — first at town meeting and subsequently in a successful Proposition 2 1/2 override vote needed to support the budget.
Jones and others, including Fin Comm member Ronald Tinkham and resident Donald Dermeyer, argued on Tuesday evening that with the recent success of the New Ashford vote, the Transition Committee should lower the town's assessment to reflect the increased tuition revenue.
"In the past, that money has come to Lanesborough," Tinkham said of the tuition payments. "We felt, from a Finance Committee standpoint, that we should be credited that amount, so we took $112,000 out [of the district's assessment]."
With the advent of full regionalization between Lanesborough and Williamstown into a single, PreK-12 district, that revenue goes to the district, unlike when each town's elementary school was a town department.
As part of the regional agreement voters in both towns approved last fall, the operating budgets for each of the two elementary schools are segregated and operational — as opposed to capital — assessments to each town are based mostly on two numbers: each town's share of the middle/high school operation (based on enrollment) and the cost of each town's elementary school.
School officials in attendance at Tuesday's town meeting argued that while New Ashford voters did approve a town budget based on the proposed higher tuition rate, the district still does not have a signed tuition agreement with the town of New Ashford, so it is premature to assume that revenue is coming in.
The school officials also argued that the budget the district drafted without anticipated K-6 tuition from New Ashford relied heavily on drawing down the school choice reserves associated with LES.
"We wanted to try to bring a budget that was zero percent [increase] or below for the elementary school, and we did that," Transition Committee Chairman and Williamstown resident Joe Bergeron told the meeting. "The second thing is, we knew we might not get the tuition revenue. … In order to [still come in with a negative increase], we were willing to spend down school choice, which is the only reserve we have.
"If we burn that down to the point where we don't have it anymore, what would need to happen is we'd potentially need to have layoffs mid-year."
Resident and former school committee member Richard Cohen elaborated, noting that, hypothetically, a seemingly small change can have a major impact on the budget at a school the size of LES.
"If a school has an [individualized education plan] meeting and needs an additional paraprofessional or some other accommodation, that needs to go into the budget immediately," Cohen said.
Jones, too, made an allusion to special education costs, but in a way that immediately Mount Greylock Superintendent Kimberley Grady to twice ask that Reilly admonish the Fin Comm chair to refrain from identifying current students in an open meeting.
"We have a student that will not be attending regular school, who attends a special needs school," Jones said.
"Rob, I'll ask against that this not be discussed," Grady said the second time Jones tried to discuss the student in question.
"I didn't name a person," Jones protested.
"It's a small community," Grady noted.
Arguing against Jones on the merits of the $112,000 amendment was one of his colleagues on the Finance Committee, which was split, 3-2, on its recommendation of the budget.
"Regional school districts take their authority from Mass General Law and the regional agreement," Stephen Wentworth argued, noting that the district's budget is the purview of the Transition Committee and not the Fin Comm's to change. "The Finance Committee didn't review the regional agreement language before or after its vote [on the budget].
"You manage risks by having reserves. Risks in the town budget are managed by adding free cash to the stabilization fund. Risk in the school budget, which is twice as big, is managed by adding funds to the school choice account, which has been drawn down."
Grady illustrated that point.
"We bring in $85,000 a year [in school choice], and we're spending $155,000 a year," she said. "We, as a school, can't sustain that."
The 43-27 vote capped about 45 minutes of debate.
The rest of the items on the 26-article warrant passed either unanimously or with overwhelming majorities.
The town did approve a non-binding resolution to declare Lanesborough a "Pollinator-Friendly Community." And it approved three zoning bylaw changes along U.S. Route 7 pitched by the Planning Board. In each instance, the town decided to rezone sections along the north-south highway as business, taking them out of the "limited business" designation.
Planning Board member Joe Trybus explained the rationale for the proposed changes, including one where the former Vacation Village sits.
"These buildings sit here because maybe some people don't feel a fit being in light business," Trybus said.
"This area that is light business right now, could potentially be used by businesses like bowling alleys, night clubs, gymansiums, health clubs, etc."
A resident asked Trybus if those types of uses are not allowed in the Limited Business district, and he replied they are not.
Three times — for three different sections of town — voters gave the necessary two-thirds majority to make the change.
In addition to the change in the Mount Greylock line item, the town's budget had one other modification by the meeting: a $20,000 increase proposed by Jones.
As he left, he asked Fin Comm colleague Jodi-Lee Szczepaniak-Locke to read an amendment he drafted for the Council of Aging expenditure in the budget.
The motion said the additional $20,000 to a proposed $21,384 line item would support more meals, wellness visits and staff for the council.
" 'Our seniors have been here for us, and now it's up to us to be there for them,' " Szczepanik-Locke quoted Jones.
After a meeting that saw the Finance Committee Chair pointing at Reilly and promising to call a lawyer, Reilly appeared both drained and subdued as he watched the last residents trickle out of the gymnasium.
In 25 years as the town's moderator, he said it was the first time he asked someone to be removed from a meeting.
"There have been people who pushed it," Reilly said. "I've had to interject, and things have settled down. But this wasn't settling down."
Eighty-six residents checked into the meeting. Town Clerk Ruth Knysh said the town has about 2,100 registered voters.
Tags: MGRSD_budget, town meeting 2018,
Support Local NewsWe show up at hurricanes, budget meetings, high school games, accidents, fires and community events. We show up at celebrations and tragedies and everything in between. We show up so our readers can learn about pivotal events that affect their communities and their lives.
How important is local news to you? You can support independent, unbiased journalism and help iBerkshires grow for as a little as the cost of a cup of coffee a week.
|iBerkshires.com welcomes critical, respectful dialogue; please keep comments focused on the issues and not on personalities. Profanity, obscenity, racist language and harassment are not allowed. iBerkshires reserves the right to ban commenters or remove commenting on any article at any time. Concerns may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.|