Williamstown Town Meeting Passes School Budget With Protest Cut
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Town meeting on Tuesday night approved the elementary school's requested fiscal 2017 budget — after cutting it by a symbolic $27.
There had been concerns that the $6 million budget would be "held hostage" by constituents angry at the reductions made to the school's Side-By-Side special education preschool program. But opponents expressed their displeasure with an amendment that cut the school's funding by $1 for every year that Side-By-Side has existed.
"It's not in keeping with the values of this community that we have held for the past 27 years," said Sam Crane, a former member of the School Committee, in making the amendment to reduce the budget. "The School Committee has the power to spend that money but we have the right to voice our opinion."
The vote brought to a close — for now — a contentious few months during which the School Committee defended its actions in reducing the beloved program because of declining need and concerns about equitable access.
Program proponents said they weren't convinced by the district's explanations.
"We were told it was a budget issue and then later that it was not about money," said Crane. "We heard more recently that the program should include financial aid for lower income ... this is something everybody agrees on — access to Side-By-Side should be open to all regardless of the way we pay. But that is not a reason to cut a full-day classroom."
Crane's motion passed by 514-158 after a hand count when the voice vote was deemed too close to call.
Current School Committee Chairman Dan Caplinger said the school was doing its best to align with town's wishes to keep increases in line while still serving the district's 430 children.
"The School Committee has been able to limit the increased appropriations from zero to 2 1/2 percent," he said, but that was done by using school choice, grants and other state funding that are drying up. That led the district to begin dipping into reserves, which is unsustainable. "The School Committee asked the superintendent to develop a budget that responds to those concerns."
The committee had worked with the town manager, and had passed the budget unanimously, as had the Finance Committee, he said.
"This budget, while difficult to create, provides education to all children at Williamstown Elementary School," said Superintendent Douglas Dias.
While cutting the full-day Side-By-Side class, the school had kept two-half day sessions to serve its special needs population and, after the protests, added in a third half-day program to ensure all the "typically developing" children who had signed up had a slot. The additional $58,424 to cover that session (and to ensure no one was turned away because of financial issues) was recommended by the Finance Committee at a last minute meeting on Monday night.
"I would support voting in favor of the motion as amended," said Caplinger of the $27 cut.
Teacher Fern Murtagh, whose class is being cut, said she didn't think of Side-By-Side as a program but about the individual children she taught. Based on her professional opinion and two decades of experience, she said they needed a cohesive full-day program.
"This discussion is about the future of multiple children and it's about our values," she said.
Maury McCarthy Lawson motioned to force the School Committee to reinstate the full-day program but was ruled out of order by Moderator Adam Filson because the article was on the budget, not the program; Kevin Kennefinck called for town meeting to reject the budget out of hand because he had no confidence in the committee's financial acumen.
"I'd be happy to raise my taxes but I would ask you to say no to this budget and send everyone back to the drawing board," he said.
But Laura Staneff objected that the budget was about more than a preschool program.
"I am shocked we would hold all the education of all of our students in town just for a program that's been dealt with very fairly," she said to scattered applause.
Principal Joelle Brookner professed her love for a school community in which she has worked and sent her own children, and her disappointment in the name calling and maligning of character that has recently occurred.
"I have been pained by the process that's gotten us here," she said. "What's happened over the past months has been a lesson for our children on what not to do when you disagree with one another."
The "underlying assumption" of changes in Side-By-Side meant the school's inclusive culture was somehow changing were not true, she said.
"We deliberately cultivate that culture," Brookner said. "Side-By-Side is not going away, it's changing based on the needs of the children.
"I have a lot of faith in the school. I have a lot of faith we can move forward."
The school budget presented in the annual warrant was for $6,081,052; town meeting approved the amendments to add $58,424 and subtract $27. The final amount of $6,139,449, or about 6.4 percent over this year, was passed on a decisive voice vote, with only a few "nays."
Town meeting approved without discussion a Mount Greylock Regional School District assessment of $5,982,213 after an amendment by School Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Greene to reduce the original amount by $432,106. The budget of $6,414,319 appearing on the warrant included capital costs of short-term bonding on the new school project of $1,219,936.
The Mount Greylock committee voted in early May to change its initial approach in addressing the principal more aggressively, believing the savings were not significant enough. That reduced Williamstown's capital assessment to $787,830. The budget is up 17 percent from this year.
Town meeting also voted to appropriate $239,108 for its assessment to McCann Technical School. That amount is up about $33,000, or 15.7 percent over this year. The hike in the assessment is being largely driven by health insurance increases and two additional Williamstown students, at 15.
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