WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Finance Subcommittee of the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee asked the district's superintendent Tuesday to negotiate an amended bus contract for the remainder of the COVID-19 closure.
The issue is that the buses are not running while school is not in session by order of Gov. Charlie Baker, but school officials are concerned that if the bus drivers, who currently are laid off, find other jobs, contractor Dufour Tours could have trouble filling those positions when schools reopen, whether that is next month or in September.
The district's assistant superintendent and business manager advised the subcommittee that it is a fluid situation as districts and the commonwealth attempt to navigate the budgetary impacts of the global pandemic.
"Mass General Law says you should only pay for services rendered," Andrea Wadsworth said. "They're working on legislation to address that. [The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] is saying if you can keep people whole, you should … especially since bus drivers are hard to find in the first place. They may find other jobs."
Wadsworth said that the state also advised that school districts work together to negotiate a single contract amendment, but that did not happen in the Berkshires, where individual districts worked out their own deals with Dufour.
She also explained that since any adjustment to the contract would be a reduction in what the district already has budgeted, a change does not need the approval of the School Committee. But Superintendent Kimberley Grady joined Tuesday's meeting to get input from the subcommittee.
"If [the drivers] are out on unemployment, there's a conversation that needs to be had with [Dufour] about whether they can agree to recall those employees … which may have a payroll tax benefit to Dufour," subcommittee chair Jamie Art said. "Under the CARES act, there is a provision that when you're paying employees to not work, it allows you to recover a portion of what you pay them in your payroll tax burden going forward.
"Unless we know they're going to recall all the drivers on their payroll … "
"I believe they'll do whatever you ask them to do," Wadsworth said. "If you say you want to make the workers whole, they'll do that."
Grady advised the subcommittee that based on past conversations with Dufour, the contractor's cost per bus works out to be about a 50/50 split between labor and other overhead, including the leases on the buses, maintenance of the bus barns and fuel.
Art asked what the percentages are within the non-labor half of the cost. Grady sent Dufour Tours a message during the meeting but did not get an immediate response.
"I would be open to a motion to authorize Kim to negotiate a reduced contract price, contingent on the preservation of employees and the maintenance of the bus fleet — keeping them ready to go when they need to get rolling — somewhere in the range of 50 to 75 percent of the bus contract depending on where his cost breakdown is," Art said.
DiLego made that motion, adding that Grady be directed to review the reduced price agreement with Art, and the motion passed, 3-0.
In other business on Tuesday, the subcommittee approved the new tuition rates for Mount Greylock's sending towns, Hancock and New Ashford, for the 2020-21 school year and received a heads-up from Grady that the district may need to adjust its FY21 budget in light of the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on municipal finances.
"Town budgets will play into [school budgets]," Grady said. "Right now, our budget at the School Committee level was approved. It has to go to the two towns for approval.
"When we set it, it was set on the Minimum Local Contribution we were aware of. There's a potential change there. We have heard nothing from our towns of a change, but be aware that could happen."
The MLC is determined by the commonwealth as a baseline for contributions from local property taxes to a school budget.
"The required local contribution is basically a measure of how much local tax revenue a city or town can reasonably raise and dedicate to the operation of its schools," according to the website of the non-profit Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. It is related to the foundation budget, which "is designed to represent the total cost of providing an adequate education for all students."
Mount Greylock's budget assessments to its member towns need to be approved at the annual town meetings in Lanesborough and Williamstown. Williamstown's Select Board voted on Monday night to postpone its town meeting (previously scheduled for May) to a date to be determined.
At a special meeting of the full School Committee on Wednesday afternoon, the panel is scheduled to begin addressing the impending departure of Wadsworth, who is leaving the district to accept a position at Berkshire Community College.
"I had an unique opportunity for professional growth by applying for the position at BCC," she said on Tuesday morning. "I am humbled and honored to be selected for this prestigious role and to join an exceptional team at BCC."
Grady praised Wadsworth for her time in Mount Greylock's central office and noted, among other things, her contribution to Berkshire County as a longtime member of the Lee School Committee and chair of the local chapter of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
"She does so much great work with political figures to advocate for education in the county," Grady said. "She works tireless hours with the [Berkshire County Education Task Force]. She attends forums at the state level with Rep. Smitty Pignatelli and Sen. Adam Hinds.
"She sets up great events for students of all ages. Higher ed is so important in Berkshire County and all over."
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Ron Bassar, assistant professor of biology at Williams College, has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The three-year, $1.6 million dollar grant will support research aimed at understanding how temporal variation in ecological and evolutionary processes allow similar species to coexist.
The project, titled "The Evolution of Fluctuation-dependent Species Coexistence," integrates theoretical and empirical research in four experimental communities of Trinidadian guppies and killifish on the Caribbean island of Trinidad.
"Understanding the processes that allow similar species to coexist has been a longstanding question in ecology and evolution," Bassar said. "It is important because diversity is a defining characteristic of natural ecosystems. Traditional explanations for coexistence have focused on static differences between species. This research will be among the first to explore the possibility that differences in species responses to intra-annual environmental variation can allow species to coexist."
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