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Williamstown Finance Committee Hears from Mount Greylock Officials

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School District is in a healthy financial position, but officials are wary of unknowns that could bring new challenges in fiscal 2022.
 
Those were two of the takeaways from a presentation to the town's Finance Committee on Wednesday.
 
Mount Greylock Superintendent Jason McCandless and Business Manager Joe Bergeron met virtually with the town panel — not to discuss specifics of the FY22 budget the district is formulating but to discuss some of the inputs that help build that budget.
 
Bergeron did not provide any specifics about the planned budget for the three-school district or its impact to property taxpayers in Lanesborough and Williamstown. He said those numbers would not be finalized until next week when the School Committee holds its annual public hearing on the budget.
 
"We're definitely in a time crunch here," Bergeron said. "In terms of proposed expenditures and what forms those take … those are numbers that will start to come out in a lot of detail next week."
 
That public hearing is scheduled for March 11. The district then will make presentations to the Finance Committees in both its member towns in advance of the town meeting votes on the assessments to those towns.
 
Those assessments will be based on formulas written into the regional agreement that divide the operating expenses above the state's "minimum local contribution" between the two towns based on a rolling five-year average of enrollment from each town.
 
"Minimum local contributions are not our formulas to use," Bergeron said. "They are the state's way of trying to indicate each town's ability to pay for education. The state dictates the minimum local contribution each town needs to make [through property taxes] to the regional school district.
 
"Both of our towns have, for many years, gone well above the minimum local contribution. We're incredibly grateful for that. But the minimum local contributions are inputs we need to factor in as we push these numbers to the end."
 
The assessment above MLC is what gets split on the five-year enrollment average. In FY21, the current fiscal year, Williamstown is paying 66.76 percent and Lanesborough 33.24 percent. For FY22, that shifts slightly, with Williamstown's contribution dropping to 66.47 percent.
 
Part of the drop is explained by "a pretty significant number" of Williamstown students who are homeschooling this year, Bergeron said. The district is not sure but anticipates a number of those students will return to the schools for the 2021-22 academic year if the pandemic subsides. Bergeron noted that the use of a five-year rolling enrollment average for apportionment protects the district from wild fluctuations of the kind that would have occurred using a one-year snapshot in a year when a pandemic causes an enrollment blip.
 
Local property taxes are just one part of the school district's revenue picture.
 
Its grant revenue prospects are, typically, somewhat murkier at this point.
 
Bergeron said the district is budgeting for slightly lower grant amounts from a number of federal sources, following a conservative budgeting approach the district has used in the past.
 
It does have certainty on two grant sources, though, a repeating $190,000 grant from Williams College to the middle-high school and nearly $412,000 from the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund 2.
 
"[ESSER 2] is the first COVID relief funding that we've seen that is new for FY22," Bergeron said. "Those funds do have certain restrictions as far as how we can use them, but they are broad enough that pretty much every area where we could see needing to implement things that go beyond our norms as well as bolstering our existing academic programs can fall within that umbrella of ESSER2."
 
Bergeron said the district can start drawing on the ESSER 2 funds next year, and what it does not use would be available in FY23, so it plans to be prudent to ensure some funding remains to smooth out any bumps in the next fiscal year's budget.
 
On the subject of "bolstering existing academic programs," McCandless told the Fin Comm that a portion of the FY22 budget will be dedicated to summer programs and expanded programming through at least January to help students recover from learning gaps created by the pandemic.
 
"We are building a budget that is, to some degree, centered around summer programming and additional learning opportunities through fall and winter for all students with a special eye on students with special needs who are particularly susceptible to losing learning," McCandless said.
 
"Some of it will look quite a bit like traditional school. Some of it wearing the disguise of more of a summer camp and a fun experience where learning is at the core of the fun activities and the social activities."
 
In answer to a question from the "floor" of the virtual meeting, McCandless said the budget unveiled next week will include funds dedicated to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging work. But he stopped short of saying that will mean a new position for a diversity officer in the district.
 
"You will see, I think, a sizable amount of money appear in the budget toward the ends of becoming a more culturally competent school system so we make sure every student, every staff member knows they belong," McCandless said. "It remains to be seen if that takes the form of a position or a process that could ultimately lead to what I think would be a more powerful, ready-to-hit-the-ground position."
 
Bergeron's presentation touched on a couple of wild cards that could impact the district's financial picture in a positive or negative direction.
 
On the plus side, like school districts across the country it is looking at the prospect of more federal aid flowing from Washington, D.C., to the states.
 
On the other hand, the Mount Greylock district is currently negotiating contract renewals with its union employees. And it is watching a bill on Beacon Hill that would create an economic incentive for teachers to take early retirement.
 
"We understand why people are pushing for it, but we'd also like some stability as we move into FY22 if at all possible," Bergeron said.
 
"That kind of statewide modification could have financial and operational modifications. We have a very experienced, capable group of teachers that we want to help carry us through the next year. Attempting to replace a larger number than would normally, organically happen would be challenging.
 
"It would also lead us down a path of trying to figure out a different way financially to address the needs that would come up if we did need to hire significantly more teachers than we'd be prepared to do in a typical year. So the shock to the system would be a shock operationally as well as financially."

Tags: fiscal 2022,   MGRSD_budget,   school budget,   

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Clark Art First Sundays Free Returns In May

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Clark Art Institute's First Sundays Free program continues on Sunday, May 2. 
 
Admission to the galleries is free to all visitors for the entire day, but advance registration is necessary. 
 
Visitors are invited to explore the Clark, indoors and outdoors. See the Clark's first outdoor exhibition, "Ground/work," consisting of site-responsive installations by six international artists: Kelly Akashi, Nairy Baghramian, Jennie C. Jones, Eva LeWitt, Analia Saban, and Haegue Yang. Enjoy an outdoor, socially distanced talk about three installations—Nairy Baghramian's "Knee and Elbow," Eva Lewitt's "Resin Towers," and Kelly Akashi's "A Device to See the World Twice" —at 11 am. 
 
Space on these walks is limited. Pre-registration and face coverings are required for all participants. Visit clarkart.edu/events for more information and to register.
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