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Williamstown School Committee Sends Budget Back to Fin Comm
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
12:51AM / Wednesday, March 30, 2016
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Steven Miller addresses the Williamstown School Committee as committee members Richard Reynolds, center, and John Skavlem look on.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Williamstown Elementary School Committee on Tuesday night signed off on a $6.6 million fiscal 2017 budget.

The spending plan is the culmination of weeks of hearings and meetings both at the School Committee and town Finance Committee level.

It is the second budget approved by the School Committee this year. Last week, at the request of the Fin Comm, Superintendent Douglas Dias presented a budget revised from the plan voted by the School Committee on March 17.

The latest revision trimmed an addition $53,256 from the appropriated, or town-funded, side of the budget.

Tuesday's vote sends the latest revision back to the Finance Committee for approval at its Wednesday 7:30 meeting at Town Hall.

The elementary school district is seeking $6,081,052 from town property taxes. The remainder of the budget, $528,711, is non-appropriated revenue — gifts, grants and School Choice receipts.

The appropriated side of the budget is up 5.34 percent from FY16 — a contrast with municipal spending, which is up by 2.3 percent.

Still, the elementary school budget includes a number of cuts. The most noticeable is the decision to scale back the school's prekindergarten Side by Side program — consolidating it to two half-day sessions and eliminating a full-day option.

In the past, Dias has said the school can serve the special needs students the program is designed to serve in the half-day sessions. At a March 3 public forum at the school, he said that while he believes in early childhood education, "public schools are not in the preschool business," and the priority of Side by Side is to serve the special needs population.

As has been the case throughout the budget season, Tuesday's meeting was well attended, but only three residents asked to address the committee during its public comment period.

Steven Miller, a member of the Mount Greylock School Committee, said Dias' philosophical concern with the structure of Side By Side should be addressed outside the context of the FY17 budget discussion.

"We can easily run the program similarly next year as we are this year — maybe take a few more non-special ed kids, maybe raise tuition a bit, maybe reassign teachers a bit — which will give us more time to engage the community," Miller said. "There has been an incredible outpouring of support for the program, and I am sure we can find a long-term solution.

"Supporting full-day Side by Side keeps a program with strong community support running, keeps people working and not collecting unemployment, keeps parents engaged with the school, provides needed funds to ease the tax burden, helps prepare kids for WES and beyond. As a parent and a voter, not only is this something I believe is the right thing to do, but something I am happy to do."

In a Tuesday email to Miller prior to the meeting, Dias wrote, "As I have stated publicly, I have several historical, procedural and supervisory questions about the [Side by Side] program that require answers, and it will take time to fully explore them so that we are able to establish a process that remains equitable, properly licensed and well-managed for the future. … As such, I will not be suggesting any new preschool initiatives until we are able to obtain answers to these questions."

Neither Dias nor the members of the committee directly addressed the Side by Side issue at the meeting. Instead, the committee's questions focused on the nature of the budget tweaks that achieved the latest $53,000 reduction in appropriated expenses and the need to pass a budget in order to stay on track with the rest of the town's budget process.

"Members of the public are concerned about the speed with which these things are happening, but it's a natural process that happens in parallel with the needs of the town," Chairman Dan Caplinger said. "To me, it's appropriate to take this action rather than cause a disruption in the town's natural financial planning process."

The committee voted 5-0 to approve the amended budget — after hearing that some of the enrichment programs that have been cut from the appropriated budget will be restored thanks to outside funding sources.

Principal Joelle Brookner announced that the Williamstown Elementary School Endowment has committed to fund Math Club, Lego Robotics and the school's fourth-grade program with Lenox's Shakespeare & Company in FY17.

Brookner said the school likely will have funding for its garden program as well, but it is in the process of re-evaluating that activity in light of new science standards for the classroom.

In other business on Tuesday, Brookner encouraged members of the community to attend a Wednesday, April 6, at 6 p.m. anti-bullying forum at Mount Greylock. "Bullying Is Bullying Our Kids Online or Offline," is a presentation of the Berkshire County district attorney's office and is aimed at parents. But Brookner said all community members are welcome to attend.

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