Updated January 17, 2023 12:19PM

Mount Greylock School Committee Hears Budget Requests, Budget Constraints

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Updated at 12:20 Tuesday with additional comments from the principal at Williamstown Elementary School
 
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — On the same night it heard about a challenging budget season ahead, the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee heard requests for as many as eight new full-time positions in the district.
 
The first order of business on the schedule Thursday was a discussion of fiscal year 2024 funding priorities for Williamstown Elementary School and Mount Greylock Regional School.
 
Middle-high school Principal Jacob Schutz gave a presentation from Mount Greylock's School Council that identified five priorities for FY24, including the addition of four positions: a Spanish teacher, visual arts teacher, a 504 coordinator and a behaviorist.
 
The request from the WES School Council, as reported by Principal Cindy Sheehy, was more modest: level staffing from the current school year except for increasing the instrumental music teacher position from half-time to full-time.
 
But during the public comment portion of the meeting, WES second grade teacher Kathleen Albano asked the School Committee to consider an FY24 budget that includes three new paraprofessional positions in the primary grades and a second technology teacher for the pre-K through 6th grade school.
 
Last month, the principal at Lanesborough Elementary School gave that school's funding requests, which included an additional 1.5 paraprofessional positions.
 
After hearing all those asks of the three district schools, the School Committee heard a preliminary budget discussion from the district's business administrator.
 
Based on projected increases from level-staffing and increased supply costs (disposables and utilities), the district is projecting a 3.4 percent increase in its gross operating and capital budget for FY24.
 
That is before the district – and municipal entities around the county – learn later this month whether the Berkshire Health Group will be raising premiums in FY24, whether the district will need to pay a higher rate to the Berkshire County Retirement System and the true impact of union negotiations underway for new three-year contracts that begin on July 1.
 
The board of the retirement system is set to meet on Jan. 25; the Berkshire Health Group board meets on Jan. 30.
 
As for the Mount Greylock district's labor contracts, Bergeron indicated their impact remains an unknown.
 
"The $750,000 number that we're currently projecting for staff salary increases, the vast majority of that is within our union contracts," he said. "A lot of that is step and column progression, as well as percentage increases we think are responsible to budget for based on negotiations around the state and negotiations we're having.
 
"That $750,000 is just a placeholder for me right now. The exact number will be different, but we need something to work with."
 
The $750,000 number plus the $90,000 projected in increases for supplies like utilities leads to the 3.4 percent gross budget increase.
 
Some of that could be offset by, for example, increased state aid or utilizing the district's reserve accounts (tuition, School Choice and excess and deficiency). But that $840,000 increase, again, is for level-funded services, not taking into account any of the funding requests from the district's three School Councils.
 
Bergeron noted that the level of state funding likely is to be unknown later into the budget system than in recent years as a new administration takes over on Beacon Hill for the first time in eight years.
 
In the spring, the School Committee will need to vote to approve a budget proposed by the administration and send that FY24 spending plan and requested assessments to pay for it to the member towns of Lanesborough and Williamstown. The Finance Committees in each town have the authority to review the budget, and it is town meeting in each town that has the final say on whether to pay the assessment.
 
The seven members of the School Committee will bring to their own deliberations the appeals from the three School Councils, which are, by law, empowered to advocate for individual buildings in a regional school district.
 
It also will carry the testimony of a few parents who logged into last week's virtual meeting to argue in favor of one of the funding requests from Mount Greylock, the addition of a middle school visual arts teacher.
 
Briee Della Rocca was the first person to address the committee during the meeting's public comment section.
 
"[R]esearch shows students experience greater social and emotional wellbeing when exposed to visual and performing arts, that they advance in their academic achievements and engagement and they gain economic and civil mobility when they have access to arts curriculum," Della Rocca said.
 
"Those results are even more profound when they have access to the arts in middle school."
 
She told the committee that arts programs in schools lead to, "fewer disciplinary actions, fewer absences and gains in overall academic engagement and aptitude."
 
Schutz also lobbied for a new arts teacher, in addition to a few other positions advanced by the School Council and a software upgrade for Mount Greylock's PowerSchool system.
 
An additional Spanish teacher would help reduce class sizes and add courses that would appeal to a greater number of students, Schutz said. A 504 coordinator would help handle the 100 current 504 plans for students at the middle-high school and the 50 referrals that the school has received this year. And a behaviorist would address higher needs students.
 
"A behaviorist is someone who has a background in restorative justice, positive behavior intervention, and with dealing with students in crisis," Schutz said. "It's not necessarily to the level of a social worker, but it's someone whose main task and goal would be working with students who have behavior issues."
 
Pressed by School Committee member Jose Constantine to prioritize the positions in his funding request, Schutz somewhat reluctantly picked one.
 
"With my perspective, wanting all of them and a couple more, I would say the most bang for our buck and the position that would sort of holistically help the most would be the behaviorist position," Schutz told the committee.
 
Albano, the second grade teacher at Williamstown Elementary, argued that additional paraprofessional support in the younger grades is a need at the school.
 
Currently, she said, WES' pre-kindergarten and kindergarten grades have one "para" per classroom, but that number drops to one para for the four first-grade classrooms, one for the three second-grade classrooms and one for the three third-grade classrooms.
 
"My reasons for suggesting some extra paras and help are mainly student needs," Albano said. "Since the pandemic, we have seen so many more social emotional needs coming out as well as academic need. As a second grade teacher, seeing the different levels as kids come into second grade and their abilities, they really start to vary. Having that extra body in the classroom to support those kids is really important."
 
WES Principal Sheehy this week said that the School Council had discussed the idea of extra support for the primary grades.
 
“However, we are hoping to get additional data that would support the need,” Sheehy wrote in response to an email asking for clarification.
 
In light of all the funding requests (School Council-supported and otherwise) and the preliminary numbers for a level funded budget, School Committee member Carrie Greene asked Bergeron, the business administrator, what message supporters of visual arts programming at the middle school should take away from Thursday’s meeting.
 
"I hear those requests," Bergeron said. "I agree with them. ... I think it's really helpful to clearly articulate what you want and why that is a very reasonable want to have. But then that does need to balance into these discussions we're going to have over the next couple of months to try to figure out how we can achieve that, if we can achieve that.
 
"I loved what was said, and I want it. Now we need to figure out if we need to sacrifice something else, or if we can find other ways to make it happen."
 
In other business on Thursday, the School Committee voted unanimously to approve the "Secure Gun Storage Resolution," advanced by the national Be SMART for Kids advocacy group.
 
The resolution directs the district's superintendent and staff to, "inform parents and guardians of their legal obligations regarding the secure storage of firearms," and work with "local law enforcement agencies, health agencies and non-profit organizations" to advance those education efforts.
 
Superintendent Jason McCandless told the School Committee that Mount Greylock became the first district in Western Massachusetts to adopt the resolution with the panel's vote on Thursday.

Tags: budget,   MGRSD,   

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Williamstown Decides to Clear Out Water Street Lot

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A long-time de facto parking lot on Water Street will be closed to vehicles as of March 1, the town has announced.
 
The 1.27-acre dirt lot that was most recently the site of the town garage has been used to park cars for decades. But the town has never formally considered it a parking lot, and it is not paved, lined or regulated in any way.
 
The town manager Thursday said that concerns about liability at the site led to a decision to place barriers around the lot to block cars this winter and for the foreseeable future.
 
"Over the fall, we kept an eye on it, and what we were seeing was upward of 160 or 170 cars on any given day," Bob Menicocci said. "It got to the point where, because of its unregulated nature, the Police Department was getting calls for service saying, ‘I'm blocked in. Can you tow this car?' that kind of thing.
 
"It was becoming an untenable situation."
 
The town's observation of the lot found a high percentage of the cars belonged to people connected to Williams College, mainly students who used it for overnight parking. That conclusion is borne out by the way the lot tends to be a lot emptier during college breaks.
 
In the fall, the school's student newspaper ran an article describing the lot as, "a perfectly legal spot to stash a car, and thus, [where] it seems that College students have lucked into a free, convenient parking lot."
 
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