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Mount Greylock District Diversity Post Casualty to FY24 Budget Stress
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
06:32PM / Monday, March 13, 2023
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School District is hitting the pause button on its search for a director of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.
 
Superintendent Jason McCandless informed the School Committee at its Thursday meeting of the decision, which is related both to the district's difficulty filling the position created in the fiscal 2023 budget and challenges arising in creating the FY24 spending plan.
 
"The reality of searching for the right person for this position and advertising is that it is an incredibly challenging position," McCandless said. "It is not a position that we put together blithely or just because it was 'the thing to do' at the time. It's a vital, important position that can bring the district capacity to do hyper-vital, hyper-important work.
 
"It's a challenging position. It's a position that requires a truly, truly exceptional individual who has expertise across a variety of areas. On top of those expertise sets, it requires an ability to communicate that's almost on a different level than I can imagine."
 
McCandless said the eight- or nine-month search process included the late withdrawal of a viable candidate. In the past he told the committee of at least two separate postings for the DEIB position.
 
He said that there were non-budgetary arguments for pausing the search process but acknowledged that finances are a consideration. The most recent draft budget presented to the committee last week included plans to fill neither the DEIB post nor the facilities director position, which both are vacant and it cuts other district office staff that helped the preK-12 district cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
"If we do stop this, now in the midst of our budget process, it is perhaps in the immediate because of budgetary concerns," McCandless said of the diversity position. "But I certainly consider it a pause and not a stoppage and certainly not a retreat from the need to do this.
 
"In the meantime, if we are to hit an extended pause, we do have a team of people in the district and access to people in the community through various means, including consultants, who can maybe put in time and effort to building better structures, to make us more ready and prepared to do another search and welcome this person in the district as a colleague to help us do better work for all of our students."
 
Most of the current School Committee members strongly supported McCandless' vision for a DEIB director last winter and spring. Two members, Julia Bowen and Jose Constantine, expressed their disappointment that the position could go unfilled at least until FY25.
 
"I get that we have a budget shortfall, and I'm not saying we need to go in deeper," Bowen said. "But I can't let this moment pass without saying I'm worried for our students without something like a DEIB director."
 
That budget shortfall, as of Thursday's meeting, stood at about $400,000 for a largely level-funded budget, according to the preliminary budget numbers presented by Business Administrator Joe Bergeron.
 
That gap comes after accounting for an anticipated sharp increase in state aid to education, one of the few bright spots in Bergeron's presentation.
 
"The governor's budget, the first bit that came out a week ago, demonstrates an enormous, wonderful commitment to funding education at the state level in ways we've never seen before," he said.
 
If that budget survives Beacon Hill, the Mount Greylock district would be in line to receive $943,492 more in Chapter 70 education aid and $154,901 more in Chapter 71 transportation aid — believed to be the largest year-to-year increases the district has ever seen, Bergeron said.
 
Meanwhile, the district's member towns, Lanesborough and Williamstown, have asked school officials to hold to a 3 percent increase in the portion of the budget to be raised from local property taxes, the largest revenue stream for the regional school district. That would bring about $566,000 more to the district than is being raised through local taxes in the current fiscal year, Bergeron said.
 
Those increases are offset by anticipated losses in revenue, like the expiration of federal grant money related to the pandemic.
 
When all is said and done, the district anticipates an increase of about $1.3 million in revenue from FY23 to FY24, if the hit to the local towns is held at 3 percent, Bergeron said.
 
The problem is that anticipated expenses are going up by about $1.7 million.
 
The district expects about a $700,000 bump in non-staff expenses alone. The largest is a $325,000 increase in health insurance, but the list also includes higher transportation ($115,000) and utility ($75,000) costs and increases in the prices of textbooks and classroom supplies ($43,000).
 
About $1 million in staff expenditures are foreseen without adding a single additional teacher. The district is facing an $800,000 increase due to "contractual obligations," like longevity and merit raises. And it needs to add about $180,000 to the substitute teaching line in the budget, Bergeron said.
 
"This year, we've seen an extraordinary increase in substitute teachers needed," he said.
 
The projected net $1 million increase in staff costs includes $230,000 in cuts to the central office staff budget, like the line items for the unfilled DEIB and facilities director positions.
 
Bergeron emphasized several times in his presentation that the numbers before the committee on Thursday were preliminary and that a lot of work needed to be done before the district's planned public hearing on the budget on March 30.
 
"There are a variety of ways that we're trying to approach decreasing that [shortfall]," he said. "They range from sharpening pencils to trying to make sure we don't leave any rock unturned as we get to that budget we'll have ready for final review and approval [on March 30]."
 
In other business on Thursday, the School Committee learned that a districtwide survey by the consultant Panorama Education will open on March 17. Panorama says it helps school districts work to create an environment "where every child has equitable access to opportunities in school and in society more broadly," according to its website.
 
The Mount Greylock survey will be open to students in Grades 5 through 12, families and staff members. McCandless said the intention will be to replicate the initial survey three times a year going forward in order to track the district's progress toward helping all students feel they belong at the elementary schools and middle high school.
 
The School Committee also approved the 2023-24 academic year calendar, which will see staff report to the three schools on Monday, Aug. 28, and classes begin for all students in Grades 1 through 12 with a full day on Wednesday, Aug. 30. Pupils in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten will begin with half days on Sept. 5 and 6.
 
The committee did not hold a planned discussion on the district's code of conduct, but McCandless took time to acknowledge publicly issues that have become apparent in the middle school at Mount Greylock.
 
"We have one grade level in our middle school that we're really, really finding ourselves challenged by, behaviorally," McCandless said. "That is not to say that there is a single bad student in that particular grade level. Having spent all week over there and getting ready to spend another day tomorrow, I'm even more convinced of that than I was at this time last week."
 
He linked some of the discipline problems to the pandemic hitting this particular cohort of students at a critical time for their social and emotional development.
 
"There is some deep, deep need in that particular grade level and some deep, deep frustration by some of the students and some of the families of the students in that grade level who come to school every day with high hopes, big aspirations, deep intellects and big dreams who want to take advantage of every minute they're in school to further their education and further their own hopes and dreams," McCandless said. "That's probably about 90 percent or 95 percent of the grade level I'm speaking of. On some days, probably 98 or 99 percent."
 
The School Committee's next meeting will be a special meeting on Thursday, March 23, to again discuss the budget one week prior to the statutory public hearing on March 30 at 6 p.m.
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