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Mount Greylock District Budget Delayed Until End of March

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School District continues to develop its fiscal 2022 budget as school officials work to develop a strategy to address diversity issues in the PreK-12 district.
 
On Thursday, the School Committee held its annual public hearing on the budget. In year's past, that has been the night the panel votes to approve the spending plan it will send to member towns Lanesborough and Williamstown with the property tax assessments voters will consider at their respective annual town meetings.
 
This year, no such vote was requested by the administration or taken by the seven-member committee.
 
"I'm going to keep on saying 'draft, draft, draft' all night long because this is a work in progress," Business Administrator Joe Bergeron said in presenting the budget to the board.
 
As recently as March 3, the district told the Williamstown Finance Committee that it would be ready with final budget numbers for the Fin Comm to review at its March 17 meeting.
 
On Friday morning, district Superintendent Jason McCandless said he anticipates the School Committee will vote the final numbers at its meeting on March 25.
 
"If the bottom line and impact on member towns change, they will be small scale changes," McCandless said Friday morning of the budget presented on Thursday evening. "We have a couple of moving pieces still out there, and we need them to settle before we make a final budget. The budget plan presented last night is very close to that, however."
 
That budget plan calls for assessment hikes to the member towns of 1.67 percent in Williamstown and 1.13 percent in Lanesborough.
 
In the case of the former, the assessment would be up by $201,924, from $12.1 million to $12.3 million. In Lanesborough, it would climb by $66,155, from $5.76 million to $5.83 million.
 
Overall, the district's budget as presented on Thursday is up by 4.5 percent, or $1 million, to $12,232,476 in FY22. Most of that increase is offset by grants and the use of revenue from School Choice and tuition.
 
The remainder, the part that falls on local property-tax payers, is divided based formulas laid out in the regional agreement that rely on a five-year rolling average of enrollment per town at the middle-high school and equalized value of property, a determination made by the state to ensure a fair measure of property values at the local level.
 
One unique feature of the Mount Greylock School District funding calculation is driving the higher assessment increase in Williamstown. Per the regional agreement, each town is responsible for the local share of the operating budget at its own elementary school — unlike the operating budget at the middle-high school, which is shared.
 
In Williamstown's case, the gross operating budget of Williamstown Elementary School is up by 8.3 percent, while Lanesborough Elementary's budget is up by 4.5 percent, in the draft FY22 budget. The operating budget at Mount Greylock is up by 2.4 percent, from $11.9 million in the current school year to $12.2 million in FY22.
 
Both elementary schools are seeing a proposed budget increase because of plans to add a full-day pre-kindergarten option, which McCandless is proposing to offer free of charge and with an emphasis on children with special needs, children from families experiencing economic difficulties and children working at English language acquisition.
 
The full-day option, which would be added to the current half-day program, will come as welcome news to Williamstown residents who fought hard against a 2016 decision to cut the full-day offering. Back then, each of the elementary schools and the middle high school was its own school district, and the three shared a superintendent.
 
"When you're talking about high quality preschool, at Lanesborough Elementary and Williamstown Elementary, we offer the highest quality preschool," McCandless said. "We're very proud of those programs and the people who make those programs happen on a daily basis.
 
"This is just a great investment on every level, and the time is always right to do this. But we think the time is particularly right this year as we know that even our youngest students and their families are going to be trying to rebound from this year that we're hopefully putting behind us soon."
 
While Bergeron walked the School Committee through some of the nuts and bolts of a draft budget that was reviewed more thoroughly by the committee's Finance Subcommittee, McCandless took the lead on discussing the principles that drove the budget's priorities.
 
That meant a heavy focus on one of his top priorities since moving into the corner office in the fall: working to address diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in the district.
 
In terms of the budget, the DEIB work is manifested by the acquisition of new classroom and library materials and financial support for professional development opportunities for faculty members. It does not, for now at least, include creating a new districtwide position focused on diversity.
 
That step has been called for by many in the community, including a group of parents and caregivers who signed on to a letter delivered to the School Committee during Thursday's public comment portion of the meeting.
 
"We offer two recommendations as you prepare the district's budget for the upcoming year," said Kim Nicoll, who read the letter into the record. "First, we urge you to dedicate ample funds to hiring an [DEIB] consultant or group to conduct a needs assessment and training for faculty, staff and students. These would be immediate steps that would form the foundation on which to build future initiatives.
 
"Second, we also urge you to hire at least one full-time staff member in the district who has extensive training in DEI and belonging work in the K-12 education sector. Our students and teachers need support that is embedded and continually happening in order to confront and dismantle systemic oppression and racism."
 
McCandless told the committee that the district needs to do more planning to decide what a position in that area might look like before it takes the step of creating a job description. He also indicated that the need for more planning for DEIB efforts is one of the reasons why a final budget has to wait until the end of the month.
 
"You may not see it as evidently [in the draft budget], although on the 25th, we are very hopeful you will: investment in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging work and planning," McCandless said. "Our real vision for this work — and certainly mindful of the excellent letter that was shared by Ms. Nicoll and the many families who signed that letter — is we know we need to have some very visible, real, tangible things going on. And between tonight and the 25th, you will see that.
 
"Like you, I see some real merit to, 'Let's do this now. Let's not even wait until the fall. Let's do it now.' I will, though, ultimately say it may not be a matter of if, for me it remains a matter of when and how we get there."
 
Other than the 2021-22 budget, the main topic of conversation at Thursday's meeting was the resumption of full in-person instruction in the 2020-21 academic year.
 
The School Committee heard six public comments from residents pushing for an immediate end to remote or hybrid models and a presentation from McCandless about why the decision is out of the district's hands.
 
Referencing last week's decision by the commonwealth's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, McCandless said that the district's elementary schools will begin offering full in-person instruction on April 5 and the middle school will be back to full day sessions five days a week on April 28. He noted that individual families still will be able to keep their children in remote models through the end of the end of the school year.
 
The state mandate includes a requirement that schools continue to require face coverings and maintain 3 feet of distance between students in the classroom — not the 6 feet that districts have been trying to maintain throughout the academic year.
 
"Whether I like this or not is immaterial," McCandless said. "Whether the committee likes this or not is immaterial."
 
School Committee members expressed their frustration that the commonwealth is not doing more to vaccinate teachers.
 
"What I hear from my fellow teachers is exactly what Jake is saying: that the announcements came in the wrong order," said Michelle Johnson, a teacher in the Lenox Public School District. "First, we found out that we were being forced back to full in-person instruction. Then, we were told, 'Now, you're going to be prioritized [for vaccinations].' "
 
Teachers were moved up on the state's priority list for vaccinations on March 3 but not given priority status in the reservation system until March 11. The Baker administration has been pushing schools to go fully in person since last summer, but only got the legal authority to mandate it from the Board of Education in an 8-3 vote taken on March 5.
 
In other business on Thursday night:
 
As part of the state's new mandate to return to full in-person instruction, capacity limits for school buses were lifted. Districts now can transport children in full buses as long as windows are kept open at least 2 inches and students are required to wear masks.
 
 McCandless reported on a second Zoom bombing incident at the middle-high school. Similar to the first, an intruder used the name of a student in a virtual classroom to gain access and played an offensive song, which was heard for about 10 seconds before the teacher was able to expel the intruder. "I completely wish we could bring you more clarity into who did this and why they did this and what we're going to do about it," McCandless said. "I'm as unsatisfied as I'm sure many of you are. … We will keep doing what we need to do to look into these events."
 
• The School Committee heard a presentation from a leader of Greylock Multicultural Student Union who updated the panel on the group's efforts to support students of color and engage on issues of equity and inclusion.
 
• Mount Greylock Principal Jake Schutz reported that attendance rates remain high at the middle-high school and staff reports that, on average, content is being covered at about the same pace as it would in a regular school year.
 
♦ School Committee member Jose Constantine revealed in passing that Kristen Thompson is no longer the principal at Williamstown Elementary School when he referred to her as the "then-principal" during a discussion of FY22 budget priorities. The school's website now lists her as the assistant principal and Cindy Sheehy as the principal. "This came about last week after a few weeks of discussion and planning about what would best serve students, staff, and the individuals involved as we work to get through this year," McCandless said on Friday morning.

Tags: fiscal 2022,   MGRSD_budget,   

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By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Forget forsythias.
 
The real harbinger of spring in small towns is the political lawn sign.
 
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