Mt. Greylock struggles with budget choices

By Linda CarmanPrint Story | Email Story
WILLIAMSTOWN — If Mount Greylock Regional High School’s budget is level funded at $8.2 million this coming fiscal year, the school could lose 13 teachers, resulting in larger class sizes, the elimination of some electives and possibly even the elimination of programs, according to Superintendent Mark Piechota. And looming over all budget deliberations is the prospect of overrides of Proposition 2 1/2 levy limits in both Lanesboro and Williamstown. The school committee heard Piechota outline his level-funded budget Tuesday. Last week, it heard him outline what he termed a “quality budget” for Fiscal 2005, which would mean about a 20 percent increase in cost. School Committee Chairman Robert Petricca said Wednesday that the sense of the committee is to opt for the quality budget, which he said, despite its name, is “bare bones” and merely restores the school to the Fiscal 2003 level. “These are difficult times, and we’ll find an answer to preserve the school,” Petricca said. “ Mount Greylock is too wonderful to cut it to shreds now. We’re worried that if we have a deficit and have to cut a lot of teachers, we’d do some substantial damage to Mount Greylock, and we’re doing everything we can to avoid that.” The level-funded budget would, Piechota said, restrict the school library to three days a week, eliminate extra labs for science classes and result in class sizes averaging 24 or 25. It would also retain this year’s athletic and activity programs, requiring student participation fees and community fund raising. Among factors guiding budget cutting, Piechota said, is the need to consider the learning needs of all students in trimming the instructional program. And, he said, the budget must be sustainable over several years. “We don’t cut something hoping we can reinstate it later,” Piechota said. “Last year, we cut all professional development. We can’t continue to do that. …We keep thinking things will get better but they aren’t.” The dual-budget approach was requested by the school committee, which asked him for both “quality” and level-funded versions. The quality budget, presented Feb. 24, totals $9.39 million, an increase of 1.2 million or nearly 20 percent. That budget assumes the school would absorb the cost of 5.4 positions previously funded by Williams College and the GAP fund. It also reinstates 5.6 teaching positions and adds three special education positions, reinstates mid-level administration and adds senior-project coordination. Class size would average about 20 students. The quality budget also would absorb the cost of stipends for coaches, officials and advisors — costs previously supported by GAP. And it assumes horizontal and vertical movement on salary schedules, but because negotiations are underway, it does not assume a salary percentage increase or changes in health insurance benefits. Those costs are projected to rise between 8 and 16 percent. Eighty-six percent of the budget is allocated for salaries and benefits. Petricca said he favors changing the designation of the “quality” budget to eliminate any impression of luxury. “It’s all basic stuff,” he said. “There are no ‘wish list’ things in there. It gets us back to the 2003 level and restored cuts for items that should really be funded by the school.” But, Petricca acknowledged, “A million-two is a huge increase for the towns, and groups in the school need to step forward. We can’t lay that big a deficit on the towns for sure.” He added, “I think we’d like to avoid an override. I think an override would be phenomenally difficult. Once we get a better sense of what the constituencies in the school are going to do, we’ll talk to Williams College about what they would consider.” The college, he said, “was very generous to us last year.” School Committee member Ralph Bradburd of Williamstown noted at the Feb. 24 meeting that if special education costs were removed from the equation, the budget has increased by an annual average of only 3 percent over the past four years. Special education costs are mandated by the state, which does not, however, provide sufficient funding for them, a matter of concern for many local officials. Piechota stressed, “Everybody’s doing their best. The towns have come forward with fundraising. But the problems are due to factors outside this room, on the state and federal level, and to the national health-care crisis. A level-funded budget, he said, “will change the character of Mount Greylock.” “The implications are still hitting us,” he said. “Mount Greylock is facing a crisis, and it’s in good company. We’re not the only ones. Public education as we know it is being threatened. Stay tuned.” On the prospects for an override, Piechota said, “People are feeling stretched. These are tough economic times. I’ve heard people say there’s no chance another override is going to pass in Williamstown.” Last year, voters approved a $600,000 override. Elementary school Superintendent Rose Ellis will present that school’s $2,559,766 budget – $119,000 or about 2.6 percent above this past year’s – on Tuesday, March 9, at 7 p.m. at the school, with a budget hearing on March 16. “We’re trying to be prudent and at the same time not decimate the quality of education,” said Ellis. “At this point, we’ll be into the core of our instruction. We really can’t go any lower.”
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