Hoosac Valley School Committee Defends Budget

By Daniel MatziBerkshires correspondent
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CHESHIRE, Mass. — The Hoosac Valley School Committee reaffirmed their support of the Hoosac Valley Regional School District (HVRSD) proposed $23 million budget.
On Monday night the school committee and school leaders defended the proposed school district budget that the Cheshire Select Board opposed at one of their own meetings in April. Dean backed the budget, which increased by $1,096,525 over this fiscal year, as being as fiscally responsible as possible.
"We're doing a lot of great work here, a lot of work that I'm proud of," Superintendent Aaron Dean said. "And I cannot in good conscience recommend doing anything other than moving forward with this budget."
During an April select board meeting, the Cheshire selectmen announced that they were hesitant to adjust their proposed municipal budget that included a level-funded HVRSD assessment. 
The school district's proposed budget included a $148,661 increase to Cheshire's assessment.
The Cheshire selectmen voted to plan for a Proposition 2.5 override. If the HVRSD budget isn't lowered to their liking, the town will be poised for an override vote - essentially putting the school budget increase to a ballot vote. 
Monday, Dean said he was confused why Cheshire took such a strong stance against the budget, especially after it had been openly discussed as far back as January.
"I want to get us on the same page in terms of discussing this," Dean said. "...We laid all of our books out on the table in terms of [school] choice numbers … in everything as far as the district goes, and I thought we had a really good discussion about collaborating on the budget moving forward."
He added that town leaders were made aware of why the increase was necessary, what positions were part of it, and what positions would be eliminated through attrition. 
Calling back to the January budget meeting with Cheshire, Dean again explained the shift in the assessment towards Cheshire, based on enrollment numbers, with Adams contributing 45 fewer students than the previous year, for a total of 729, and Cheshire adding four, for a total of 224. Enrolment is a major factor in the calculation that determines each town's assessment. 
He added that the district's budget is increasing by 5.1 percent in total. He said this is lower than other school districts and around the same as the McCann Technical School budget.
In all, Dean said there were ample opportunities after that January meeting for town leaders to approach the district about their concerns between Audit and Evaluation subcommittee meetings and full school committee meetings.
Dean pointed first to parts of the assessment that are out of the district's control. This included students who elected to go to a charter school, a school outside of the district, or students who need to attend specialist schools.
In total, this is a $503,976 cost to the district or 45 percent of the budget increase.
"And sometimes it looks like we're increasing this large amount," Dean explained, "but the reality is … $503,976 goes to 242 students that never walked through our doors."
Dean broke this down further:
  • 76 Charter School students: $296,653 ($3,903 per student)
  • 158 School Choice Students: $175,000 ($1,108 per student)
  • 8 in need of special education tuition: $32,323 ($4,040 per student)
Dean added in an email exchange that he anticipates having to find a way to cover even more special education tuition expenses than are budgeted in the coming year.
"If we are forced to use reserves to fund our budget, we would have no way to cover these increases," he said.
School committee member Michael Henault cited a Vanderbilt University study showing a perception among parents that due to low levels of funding at HVRSD other districts who have more can provide higher quality academic and non-academic programming. 
This perception is one of the main reasons given for the use of school choice, he said.
Going further into the budget, Dean said that the $170,000 in capital expenses would be offset by the use of excess and deficiency funds. Meaning some maintatcne projects would be of no costs to the towns. 
"So out of a $1,096,525 increase, really $422,769 benefits 990 students coming through our doors right now," Dean said.
Dean went on to explain and reaffirm his support of elements of the budget only possible through the increase including the continued support of programs and initiatives established in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to address behavioral problems, absenteeism, curriculum development, and a commitment to equity.
"The supports for curriculum and behavior have been gradually implemented through the use of ESSER funds over the past three years, and key positions have been strategically implemented into the budget," Dean said.
The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds were a 2021 federal response to the pandemic and are set to expire in September of this year.
Specifically, he pointed to the implementation of a Data Equity Pause Protocol that led to the discovery that students with special needs were being underserved.
"So we've had that as a focus this past year," Dean said. "Really looking at ways we can support them better in the regular classrooms,"
Henault added that many of these support programs are necessary to comply with state and federal accountability standards. 
It is these programs and more that Superintendent Dean said will need to be cut to keep Cheshire level-funded.
"That means I have to reduce our budget by $570,000. Which system would you like me to dismantle in order to make that happen?" Dean asked rhetorically. "We're building a district that people can be proud of. We're building a district that people should be supporting instead of trying to take down."
Dean noted that the ratification of a new teacher's contract also has attributed to the increase. He added that not only are these raises deserved, but they help keep the district competitive when it comes to hiring within Berkshire County. 
The school committee was in support of Dean's presentation. Henault called the budget "probably the most fiscally responsible budget that I've seen put forward in a school district … in a long time"
Committee member Adam Emerson stressed that education is a service, not a product for which the results of investment are immediately clear. 
"We are dealing with families and young people who have their own things that they bring to their education," he explained.
He stressed further that HVRSD prepared carefully and thoughtfully for the eventual loss of ESSER funding, leading to "one of the most fiscally sound budgets given the ESSER cliff we hit."
School Committee member Robert Tetlow also showed support for the budget adding that "I gotta go along with it. I think the needs are there."
But he did acknowledge that many communities are struggling to balance their own budgets.
"It's a tough time to be asking for more money," he conceded.
He said he hoped for a clean resolution, a statement the entire committee supported.
"You'd like to get support from the town on the budget" he said. "That would make things better."


Tags: HVRSD,   school budget,   

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