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Mount Greylock School Committee Sends FY22 Budget to Member Towns

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Mount Greylock Superintendent Jake McCandless addresses the School Committee during Thursday's virtual meeting.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee on Thursday advanced a fiscal 2022 budget proposal that features investments in expanded summer offerings and diversity work but minimizes the impact to local property tax payers.
 
Member towns Lanesborough and Williamstown will be sent FY22 assessments that call for increases of 2 percent and 1.9 percent, respectively, over their FY21 assessments under the spending plan passed by the committee on a 7-0 vote.
 
District Business Administrator Joe Bergeron explained that while the preK-12 district's operating budget is up by about 4.6 percent, much of that increase is absorbed by grant funding and use of the district's three reserve accounts: excess and deficiency, school choice and tuition.
 
Williamstown voters will be asked to approve an assessment of $12,346,994, up $233,570 from the $12.1 million figure they approved at last summer's annual town meeting.
 
Lanesborough's assessment under the proposed budget stands at $5,876,831, a hike of $114,995 from last year's $5.7 million school bill.
 
First-year Superintendent Jake McCandless walked the School Committee through a number of investments that the proposed budget makes.
 
"A budget is a mark of what we believe about the world, what we believe about our role in it and what we want to do and see for students in the district," McCandless said. "A budget is a moral document, a document of who we are and what we believe in."
 
Two significant changes in the world the last couple of years drive the increased expenditures in the FY22 spending plan. The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the district's students has prompted the district to offer new summer programming for its regular education students. Increased calls for the schools to address societal inequities have inspired significant investments in McCandless' Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging initiative.
 
That investment, for now, does not include a dedicated position in the district to oversee that DEIB work. But, as McCandless said at the School Committee's March 11 meeting, for him, "it is not a matter of if, it's a matter of when" such a position will be funded.
 
"Right now, in this current budget, was not necessarily the ‘when,' " McCandless said. "We have a lot of work to do from the leader of the district on down -- to get more practiced and adept and with a better toolkit to use to actually be full allies to a host of different types of students before a position like that would be anything but a frustration for an individual."
 
Instead of that position, the proposed FY22 budget includes $45,000 in additional spending for professional development with an emphasis on DEIB training, $60,217 for a new social worker at Lanesborough Elementary School, $63,428 for a social worker at Mount Greylock Regional School and $122,500 for new textbooks at the two elementary schools.
 
"The purchase of an elementary English and language arts curriculum is a one-time ever five- to 10-year expense, however, as we consider the age and appropriateness of our math curricula, of our social studies curricula, of our science curricula and other materials needs in our elementary schools, we really felt like it was important that we draw some lines in the sand and project sizable amounts of money every year for curricula renewal," McCandless said. "Like most districts in the United States, we are, to some degree, playing catch-up. And if we're doing curricula the right way and listening to the voices of our teachers, our in-house experts, on what works, we want to have the flexibility to be able to put the best tools into their hands.
 
"Not every 15 years or even every 12 years but maybe every five to 10 years. So we do include these in the regular budget and not simply as one-time items."
 
On the other hand, the district is hoping that the expanded summer school offerings will be a one-time, post-pandemic expense.
 
Although, like most districts, Mount Greylock has a history of providing summer programs for special needs students, this July and August it will open up, "powerful learning opportunities that are powerfully fun" for all students, McCandless said.
 
"We would see the programs at all three schools as being perfectly appropriate for regular ed students and students who need special education support …," McCandless said. "We are right now seeing this as a summer of ‘21 thing that may be a one-time cost, but I don't want that etched in stone."
 
Fortunately for the district, it has some reserve funds built up that will help pay for some of the increases in the budget -- both those that are potentially one-time expenses and others, like new staff and a commitment to curriculum improvement, that are long-term commitments.
 
"We view this transition from a pretty significant tuition revolver balance of $1.767 million down to $1.313 million as something that, in this year, pulling out of the pandemic, trying to reinforce as many areas as we can and covering some one-time expenses that we do not view as being carried forward into FY23, along with a similar level of reductions in our School Choice balances … we view this as a responsible way to move forward with our towns, gradually introducing new increases in assessments in a way that, per conversations with both towns, they appreciate the approach we're taking," Bergeron said.
 
Bergeron characterized the expanded use of reserves to lower the assessments while increasing the budget as a way to give Lanesborough and Williamstown a "runway" to gradually higher assessments.
 
"Given what we're doing here, we're only going to need this year, perhaps next year of runway to be able to move to this updated form with being able to serve our students in new and better way," Bergeron said.
 
The tuition revolver account started at $1.7 million at the beginning of FY21. Including projected expenditures of just more than $1 million from account in FY22, the district expects it to stand at just over $1.3 million at the end of the coming fiscal year.
 
For School Choice, which stood at just over $1 million going into the current fiscal year, $505,000 in expenditures next year would leave it at about $702,000 going to FY23.
 
Excess and deficiency -- a school district's equivalent of towns' free cash account -- started FY21 at just more than a million and would end FY22 at about $532,000 after the proposed FY22 expenditures of $240,000 in the spending plan passed on Thursday.
 
"If we were to introduce all of the increase as assessments, meaning not increase our use of revolver accounts, we'd be up in that 5 percent range [in assessment increases]," Bergeron said. "By not going that far in how we push our member towns, we've been able to keep those assessment increases lower."
 
At Thursday's meeting of the School Committee's Finance Subcommittee, Steven Miller indicated that the district was fortunate to have healthy revolver accounts to tap.
 
"This shows the advantage of having rainy day funds so when something like this hits, we can deal with it," Miller said. "So we can do this without having a major sticker shock."

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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