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Mount Greylock Transition Committee May Back Off on Size of Tuition Hike
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
12:58AM / Friday, February 02, 2018
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Transition Committee last week indicated it may reconsider its "take it or leave it" tuition offer to towns who send students to the preK-12 district.
 
Chairman Joe Bergeron and committee member Chris Dodig told their colleagues at their Jan. 25 meeting that the district received some push back from officials in New Ashford and Hancock about the committee's decision to raise tuition at Mount Greylock by 23 percent and charge $17,843 per student from kindergarten through 12th grade.
 
"It was a good meeting," Dodig said. "They were respectful of what we were doing. They were a little concerned about it. But it was a good meeting and a good group of people."
 
Dodig, Bergeron and interim Superintendent Kimberley Grady met with representatives from New Ashford and Hancock, Bergeron told the committee.
 
"The two challenges they cited were: One, they felt they had not received notification of it," Bergeron said. "I'm coming new to this. I'll admit. … The second thing is they asked if there was any way to avoid the number shock when they went back to their townspeople with the number. Is there a way to phase that in?
 
"We said we'd bring that back to our committee."
 
For years, Lanesborough Elementary School and Mount Greylock have been criticized for setting tuition levels below the per-student cost published by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The third school in the newly expanded Mount Greylock Regional School District, Williamstown Elementary School, has a negligible number of tuition pupils in any given year.
 
At Lanesborough and Mount Greylock, on the other hand, the numbers are more significant. The schools are widely used by families in New Ashford, which lies between Lanesborough and Williamstown, and Hancock, which has its own elementary school, sends a high percentage of its middle-high school students to Mount Greylock.
 
In response to criticism -- including from town officials in Lanesborough -- both the Mount Greylock and Lanesborough school committees moved to increase tuition in recent years.
 
Four years ago, Mount Greylock negotiated a phased-in approach that would have set the Grade 7-12 tuition at $14,477 per student in fiscal 2019.
 
Last year, the Lanesborough committee decided unilaterally to tie tuition for K-6 students to the DESE-published rate, as is done in some other school districts.
 
But although New Ashford was on notice about the increase for Lanesborough School pupils, neither town (nor Stamford, Vt., which sends students to Mount Greylock) discussed the pending hike in tuition for Mount Greylock before the Jan. 2 vote at the first Transition Committee meeting since it assumed control of the expanded district's finances.
 
"I think the takeaway message after all was said and done … was their request to phase [the increase] in over two years," Dodig said on Thursday. "I say two, and that's my recollection. They'd prefer a longer phase in, but ultimately it came down to, 'Can you do it in a couple of steps?'
 
"We did invite them to send us more information about how it will affect their budget. I have not seen any of that."
 
Bergeron indicated the discussion with the towns is ongoing.
 
"After tonight, I suspect I'll reach out to them with followup on that," he said in reply to Dodig's comment about not receiving budget data from the towns.
 
On Jan. 2, the Transition Committee discussed having a dialogue with the sending towns before setting the tuition rate but ultimately decided to set a rate that tracks with the DESE figure. Three weeks later, several members of the seven-person committee indicated they might be willing to revisit the question.
 
Steven Miller suggested that a phased tuition increase could be paired with another budget request from the regional school district.
 
"I can see both sides in this," Miller said. "If we're going to phase it in -- we also asked them about sharing the cost of the building. How about phasing in the tuition increase but also asking them to share the cost of the [Mount Greylock building project]?"
 
Carolyn Greene asked for clarification on the delta between the previously negotiated Mount Greylock tuition and the figure voted by the Transition Committee earlier in the month -- from $14,477 to $17,843.
 
"Before this last contract, the rate had been significantly lower," said Greene, who was chair of the Mount Greylock School Committee when the phased-in increase was negotiated for 7-12 students. "The goal of this five-year contract was to move toward the per-pupil rate, but it was phased. That was the most recent precedent Mount Greylock set.
 
"We have not had discussions with them similar to Lanesborough [Elementary School]. I think it's fair to consider phasing."
 
Committee member Dan Caplinger made the point that town officials pressed the then-Mount Greylock School Committee to structure debt payment on the building project such that the impact on town finances would not come all at once.
 
"I think as memory serves with the building project, Williamstown and Lanesborough had a similar discussion about whether to have the tax increase all in one year or to phase it in," Caplinger said. "To me, this seems like a symmetrical request on [the sending towns'] part and worth listening to."
 
Dodig suggested to Bergeron that he put the tuition issue on the agenda for the next Transition Committee meeting and invite members from the sending towns to attend.
 
"I think that makes sense," Bergeron said. "I'll go back to tell them what was discussed here. You can expect it to come up on Feb. 8."
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