Mount Greylock School Committee members Joe Bergeron and Regina DiLego participate in Thursday's meeting.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock School Committee on Thursday decided to add to the fiscal 2020 budget in order to restore hours slated to be trimmed from the Lanesborough Elementary School music program.
After hearing from several teachers at the elementary and high school level who argued against the cut, the six members of the seven-person panel in attendance voted unanimously to restore about $6,000 to the $22.4 million gross operating budget for the three-school, PreK-12 district.
"I see 100 students by 9 a.m. on Mondays, but that's only because they have had just enough instruction in playing their instrument to keep them challenged and rewarded," middle-high school performing arts teacher Lyndon Moors told the committee.
Without the proper time for instruction at the elementary school level, LES pupils would not receive those challenges and fall behind their peers in Williamstown, the School Committee was told repeatedly.
The $6,000 restoration -- .026 percent of the total spending plan -- and the proper number of school choice slots to open at the district's elementary schools consumed most of a nearly four-hour meeting.
On the school choice issue, the committee followed the recommendation of the administration, opening up five new choice slots at Williamstown Elementary School -- three in kindergarten and two in the first grade -- and none at Lanesborough Elementary School.
On the budget, the committee made one modification to the spending plan worked out by the committee and administration over the last couple of months, amending the line item for specialists at LES by about $6,000 to move a music teacher position back to .8 full-time equivalent (FTE) from the .6 FTE reflected in the draft budget.
By a 6-0 vote, the School Committee approved the budget and sent it to town meeting votes in Williamstown in May and Lanesborough in June. Williamstown's town Finance Committee had reviewed the school budget earlier in the week; Lanesborough's Fin Comm is set to hear a budget presentation from the district on April 1.
The total assessment to Williamstown is slated to go up by $304,688 to $12,113,764, an increase of about 2.5 percent, even though the gross operating budget is down slightly in from FY19, largely because of retirements at the PreK-6 school. Per the regional agreement, each town is responsible for the operating cost of its own elementary school; costs at the middle-high school are shared.
The total assessment (including operating and capital costs) for Lanesborough will go up by about $64,000 (after the money added Thursday night). That represents a 1.1 percent increase from last year's $5,753,310 assessment, up to about $5,817,500.
Although Lanesborough's assessment is up by less than Williamstown's, the operating expenses at the smaller town's elementary school are going up -- from $3.7 million a year ago to just more than $4 million this year. The cost to local taxpayers is mitigated by changes in demographics that affect both in the split at the middle-high school level and the commonwealth's "foundation budget" and ultimately state aid.
None of that was the focus on Thursday, when pleas based on the importance of arts education and equitable staffing at the district's two elementary schools set the tone.
Lanesborough Elementary music teacher Jacqueline Widun told the committee she could not be more proud of the pupils she teaches but was worried about the impact of fewer hours of instruction.
"I wonder how Williamstown is doing," Widun said. "Will my students feel intimidated next year when they go to Mount Greylock? Will they quit?
"My students deserve a chance to succeed … just like their northern neighbors."
Marty Walter, the president of the district's teachers union and a teacher at Mount Greylock, echoed that theme.
"Part of the regionalization process promised the schools would be equalized," Walter told the committee. "It sounds to me like LES is being diminished compared to Williamstown."
One speaker argued against adding any more money to the budget.
Lanesborough resident Ray Jones, a former member of the town's Finance Committee, told the committee that he appreciates the value of music instruction but that his family paid for private lessons when his child wanted to learn an instrument.
Jones repeated a theme that he has brought up in public meetings for years: that Berkshire County's "dire economic straits" prohibit towns from providing everything that residents may want at their public schools.
"We have people in Lanesborough who can't afford their medicine on a daily basis, can't afford their food," Jones said. "We have three new schools. … We're getting the most expensive schools there are. This is a beautiful school.
"I'm sorry if the administration has to make decisions [about cuts]. That is their job. The teachers are the employees. If the employees don't want to do what the bosses tell them, may I suggest that Pittsfield has openings. Holyoke has openings."
School Committee Chairman Joe Bergeron interrupted Jones at that point, but the point was made, eliciting grumbles from most of the crowd packed into the Mount Greylock Regional School meeting room.
After the public comment period, when it was time for the committee to consider the budget, members asked Superintendent Kimberley Grady and LES Principal Martha Wiley to explain how the reduction in the music position from .8 FTE to .6 FTE would impact instruction.
Both said lower enrollment numbers and few class sections at the school meant instruction levels could be maintained with fewer hours devoted to the position. Members of the audience scoffed at that notion.
"The question is whether the people of Lanesborough are willing to have a slightly higher assessment … to restore, say, music to 0.8," committee member Steven Miller said.
"That's the town's decision," Grady replied. "I'm asked as superintendent to bring a fiscally responsible budget to the two towns."
Committee member Dan Caplinger suggested that if there was an ability to cut back on the number of hours devoted to classes because of the drop in enrollment, the LES music teacher could spend more time on individual instruction if the position was kept at 0.8 FTE.
Miller ended up moving that the position be restored to the level it was funded in FY19, a motion that was seconded by Christina Conry.
"If Lanesborough voters reject that budget, what would your proposal be to get a budget passed at their town meeting?" Caplinger asked.
"I'd propose to go back with the [draft] budget we have in hand," Miller answered. "This is an opportunity for the people who are here tonight to go to town meeting and make their case."
Caplinger argued that he would rather see the money restored in the form of an amendment on the floor of Lanesborough's town meeting, a move that would keep the possibility of passing the original draft budget -- unamended -- and keeping the district's budget from having to face revotes at special town meetings in both member towns.
Bergeron argued that it was more practical for the committee to pass the budget it wanted to see rather than rely on floor amendments down the road.
"Hearing what I have tonight, I'm hopeful that if we add the $6,000, many more people will show up [at town meeting] to support the budget than would otherwise," Bergeron said. "That's what I'd be willing to gamble on if I voted for this today."
In the end, Caplinger joined in the vote to take the path proposed by Miller.
The music position was not the only point of contention with regard to the Lanesborough Elementary budget, however. Several people told the committee they felt the school's budget, in general, was developed without adequate input from the School Council, which is supposed to advise and inform the administration on school budget priorities.
"The School Council did not recommend a budget proposal," said LES teacher Jennifer Szymanski, a union vice president. "They did not discuss programs in order to make decisions about this proposed budget. Administration presented the proposed budget to the group. In fact, one member learned that her position was potentially being eliminated at that meeting."
Later, Caplinger asked the administrators to explain the budget process.
"It first starts with school councils," Grady said.
"Our school council meetings have been monthly, except when we had to cancel one because of snow," Wiley said. "We looked at data for all our classrooms. … We talked strategically about how we could get [our priorities] done based on the budget, based on our enrollment."
"Did the School Council unanimously support this proposed budget?" Miller asked Wiley.
"Yes," the principal replied, a response that again drew grumbles and muttered "Nopes," from members of the audience.
Wiley and WES Principal Joelle Brookner both addressed the School Committee at length on the subject of school choice.
Brookner told the committee she was recommending three slots in the incoming kindergarten class even though she knew of five families with children in WES' upper grades who have younger siblings enter kindergarten next year.
Brookner explained that families with siblings are given priority in school choice admission because of the difficulty of having children attending multiple schools. If all five apply for the three slots ultimately opened, the school will conduct a lottery to assign those spaces. If any spots still remained, they would be opened to a lottery for all applicants.
Brookner said she felt compelled to advocate on behalf of all five of the families in question, but the official recommendation of three kindergarten spots was a concession to the annual uncertainty around incoming kindergarten registrations from the resident population. Historically, WES has seen a large influx of registrations in the summer despite the administration's best efforts to reach out to families to get children registered in the winter prior to their kindergarten year.
Lanesborough Elementary School music teacher Jacqueline Widun makes her case to the committee.
The most divided vote of the night came on an amendment by Caplinger to up the number of choice slots in WES' 2019-20 kindergarten class to five. The amendment failed on a 3-3 vote with Caplinger, Conry and Alison Carter voting in favor and Bergeron, Miller and Regina DiLego voting against.
All six voted in favor of the final motion to set the school choice slots at three in kindergarten and two in first grade for the upcoming fall.
"I'll vote for this because three is better than none, but it doesn't change how I feel about five," Caplinger said.
Miller asked Grady to find out from officials at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education about whether the committee could reopen the choice question at a later date and add more spots as the school learns more about the size of the resident population in next year's kindergarten.
At Lanesborough Elementary, the question of a kindergarten-age child with a sibling at the school also was before the committee.
Wiley said that while her "heart goes out to that family, class size is really important."
And the fear was that, again, adding a school choice slot in the kindergarten class could put the school in the position of having either a non-optimal class size or, worse, having to pay for an additional kindergarten room to alleviate overcrowding.
DiLego, long a member of the Lanesborough Elementary School Committee before her election to the Mount Greylock School Committee in November, told her colleagues that LES had seen as many as seven or eight new kindergarten enrollees over the summer. And her fear was that the addition of choice slots could make for an unusually large kindergarten class size.
"We have had classes of 24, but it was a budgetary thing with a big fight," DiLego said. "Is 24 ideal? No. Smaller is better.
"As a taxpaying resident, 16 is it. So to take a choice student and make [the class size] higher takes away from a resident student whose family is paying taxes."
DiLego voted in a 4-2 majority to accept the administration's proposal of no new choice slots at LES or Mount Greylock. Caplinger and Conry voted in the minority. Committee member Al Terranova did not attend Thursday's meeting.
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