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Williamstown Finance Committee Finalizes Letter to Mount Greylock Committee

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Dan Caplinger argued that the letter as drafted might not be taken the way the Finance Committee hoped it would be taken.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — As expected, the town's Finance Committee on Wednesday approved a letter advising the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee but only after one Fin Comm member suggested the letter could be seen as "condescending" and "patronizing" by the recipients.
On a vote of 7-1, the panel decided to send the letter to the School Committee asking that the latter continue "retaining at least $1.5 million [of the Williams College capital gift] as a capital improvement reserve."
The two-page letter discusses the importance of "planning for future eventualities" and reminds the School Committee of the "best practices" for maintenance and capital planning from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which helped fund the recent renovation/addition project at the middle-high school. And it talks about the challenging fiscal environment for public entities in Massachusetts due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Fin Comm's letter also refers twice to its oversight role in reviewing the school district's budget.
At the start of the third paragraph, the letter notes, "we as a Committee will have to make
a recommendation to the Town Meeting about whether or not to approve Warrants for budgeted expenditures including the Town's contribution to the School District." On the letter's second page, it states that if the district preserves the $1.5 million in question as part of an overall plan, the Finance Committee, "would endorse such a plan and would recommend it with enthusiasm to our community."
Finance Committees in both Mount Greylock's member towns, Williamstown and Lanesborough, already have voted to recommend the district's fiscal year 2021 spending plan. Lanesborough is holding its annual town meeting as scheduled on Tuesday; Williamstown has postponed its town meeting to a date to be determined.
Dan Caplinger, who joined the Fin Comm this spring, was the lone member to vote against Wednesday's letter.
Caplinger served on the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee before resigning in February and the Williamstown Elementary School Committee before that and said it was "awkward" for him to be discussing a matter tied to that former service, especially as the newest member of the Finance Committee.
But he sent his colleagues a two-page letter which he read into the record during Wednesday's virtual meeting.
"Although it's written with the best of intentions, I believe it will not achieve its intended purpose. Instead, it may well serve only to foster animosity and discord among public bodies that should be cooperating and collaborating much more extensively than they have in the past, with mutual respect and full understanding of each other's responsibilities and challenges," Caplinger wrote.
"Although I trust that our intent isn't to condescend or patronize, some School Committee members may justifiably interpret the proposed letter that way if we send it," he wrote at another point.
Caplinger said that he believed the School Committee members already understand the value of capital reserves and are aware of the language from the Massachusetts School Building Authority cited in the Fin Comm letter.
He argued that school committees generally have a different remit than town finance committees. The former has legal obligations to "students, faculty and staff" that it must fulfill while satisfying the budgetary demands of municipalities.
"Finance committees in general have the luxury of being able to focus on budget and fiscal
matters in a vacuum," Caplinger wrote. "We need not fully understand the educational duties and responsibilities that school committees bear."
Finally, he questioned the Finance Committee's decision to offer its advice to the School Committee at its time, when the only potential threat to the $1.5 million capital reserve is money the district could decide to use to make improvements to the playing fields on the Mount Greylock campus.
"Some will see the timing of this letter as an indication that we have substantive concerns about the specific use the School Committee contemplates for its spending rather than any desire to preserve a capital improvement reserve," he wrote. "Otherwise, the Finance Committee would have made its concerns known far earlier than now."
Finance Committee Chair Stephen Sheppard, who co-wrote the letter with Paula Consolini and Michael Sussman, said it was not the intent of the Fin Comm to patronize the members of the School Committee.
"I just would say there's absolutely no intention to be condescending or to imply that the School Committee doesn't understand stabilization funds or endowments or things like that," Sheppard. "I couldn't agree more that we need to work more to foster an atmosphere of collaboration and mutual respect.
"Mutual respect, of course, doesn't mean deference in all things. My thought on the language was just simply to say: This is a complex and difficult issue. We appreciate the flow of information that's happened. There was information that was provided via [Superintendent Kim Grady's] briefing to [Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch] and myself. That's not always been the case that the Finance Committee has been invited to these briefings. But we appreciate being invited, and we would welcome continued and ongoing collaboration."
Melissa Cragg said she agreed in general with the thoughts expressed in the letter and had not seen it as condescending. But after reading Caplinger's letter, she saw how it could be read that way.
Cragg seized on the last paragraph of Caplinger's letter, in which he recommended that instead of sending the letter it drafted, the Finance Committee invite the School Committee members to a joint meeting to talk about their concerns.
In the end, the Fin Comm voted to make that invitation at the end of the letter as drafted.
The letter was amended at Wednesday's meeting to include the following final sentence: "We also welcome a joint meeting should you wish to arrange one with us."

Paula Consolini helped draft the letter and joined her co-authors in saying its intent was to offer the opinion of the Finance Committee, not to tell the School Committee what to do.
Sussman argued that the Finance Committee was not attempting to micromanage the School Committee's budget or infringe on the duties of the school panel.
"We're not talking to the School Committee about teachers salaries," Sussman said. "The item that we're concerned about is a generic thing of maintenance of buildings and keeping them up to date and not having emergency problems in the future — i.e. long-term planning.
"And I think that's really very much in the ballpark of a finance committee in helping the town."
Caplinger said that he understood the Finance Committee's intention, but with votes of the Fin Comm and the select boards in Lanesborough and Williamstown already on the public record, the potentially inflammatory letter was superfluous.
"I know what the Finance Committee is trying to do with the letter," he said. "I know with the discussions in iBerkshires and the talks about the various town bodies weighing in — we've already delivered the message. There's nothing that the letter is really going to do to add to that.
"I'll oppose it, but it won't overly upset me if I get voted down because I understand what you're trying to do. And based on the comments that you've made, I hope School Committee members are listening and will take it in the spirit in which you intend it."

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