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Mount Greylock School Committee Members Push to Keep Diversity Post in Budget
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:14AM / Monday, March 27, 2023
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Mount Greylock School Committee members and members of the public argued on Thursday for preserving a districtwide diversity, equity and inclusion position in the fiscal year 2024 budget.
"Surveys and interview data from the Mount Greylock Listening and Learning project inspired you and district leaders to create and fund the Director of [Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging] position in the first place," said Matt Smith, a member of the district's DEIB Parent and Caregiver Action Network. "If current staff have the capacity for 'building better structures' for DEIB work as the superintendent suggested on March 9, why aren't they doing so already?
"District leaders claim to care about DEIB work without committing the time and resources required for meaningful change. Asking families to pay more in property taxes for a reduced commitment to DEIB is the wrong strategy. Let's get uncomfortable and put our money where our mouth is, even if it means paying slightly more in property taxes than our towns would prefer."
Superintendent Jason McCandless, who has made DEIB work a cornerstone of his tenure in the district and who created the district-level director position and inserted it into the FY23 budget, has suggested that the district might take a one-year pause on filling a post that has yet to be filled after an unsuccessful search process in the summer and all of 2023.
Removing the $100,000 allotted to the DEIB post in the FY23 budget would be one of several personnel cuts the administration is considering to help bring the total operating budget for the preK-12 district in line with its member towns' requests to hold spending increases to 3 percent year to year.
McCandless and Business Administrator Joe Bergeron did not provide line-item detail on where the rest of the cuts could come. But they indicated to both the School Committee and its Finance subcommittee on Thursday that a 3 percent increase in the assessments to Lanesborough and Williamstown is achievable using personnel cuts through attrition and not filling vacant posts at the district level, including the DEIB director and facilities director.
"We have teachers retiring or moving out of state who will somehow be departing at the end of the school year already," Bergeron told the Finance subcommittee. "We have paraprofessionals moving on to other positions, moving away or retiring. This is not a question of letting people go we already have on staff. This is a question of not replacing folks as we move forward."
Most of the conversation at Thursday's special meeting of the School Committee centered on the one position that the district never has filled and would not for at least another year if the administration continues on the path it laid out earlier this month.
Another member of the district's DEIB advocacy group, Valerie Bailey Fischer, followed Smith in providing comments to the School Committee at the start of the meeting.
"This is a very important issue in our community," Fischer said. "The subcommittee I was on interviewed families of students who suffered microaggressions and microaggressions in the schools, and it was heart-breaking.
"I know there is a feeling you could deal with these issues with the people you have, but I encourage you to move forward and get a DEI expert. It's a fine school district, but these issues are affecting school districts across the country."
Several members of the seven-person School Committee pushed back against the idea of leaving the DEIB director post out of the FY24 spending plan.
Jose Constantine challenged anyone in the community who might suggest that a DEIB director in the central office is a "frill."
"Many of our families of color in our district have been harmed because of racism, prejudice, bigotry," Constantine said. "For all those families, this work is not an extravagance.
"Given that our communities are increasingly becoming more diverse, these types of challenges will become even more prevalent in our day-to-day operations. I think I'll be frank: The proposal you've put forward to us is inadequate. And I think many families will perceive it as that."
Curtis Elfenbein noted that the current rate of inflation means that the cost of doing business is going up everywhere, and the district should not confine itself to a relatively arbitrary increase like 3 percent when deciding on assessments to its member towns.
"Three percent seems low to me," Elfenbein said. "Everything costs more now. So does operating a school in this community. I'm open to the idea of coming with more than a 3 percent 'ask,' so to speak."
Julia Bowen indicated that the School Committee needs to do more to advocate to the taxpayers and potential town meeting attendees in each member town about the importance of the DEIB position.
"I feel this is a much broader community conversation that needs to happen," she said. "In my mind, we do make a tradeoff around supporting things like sports and extracurriculars, which are super important … But fundamentally, our job is the classroom. That's where [DEIB work] is needed the most. So we are making a tradeoff in different ways.
"I fear that if we did say, 'We're not going to fund whatever sports thing,' our budget wouldn't pass."
Carolyn Greene said it would not be the first time the district has brought a budget to town meetings in the spring that required higher assessments than town officials have advocated for in the winter — and those budgets have passed.
Steven Miller, on the other hand, pointed out that the FY24 budget will not be the only budget in the coming years that will be stressed by rising costs. And, referencing a vote the School Committee took at its March 9 meeting, he noted that the district will have to come to the member towns with requests to fund building renewal needs that the committee will not be able to fund from proceeds of a Williams College capital gift.
"We're not even at 3 percent with where we are right now," Miller said. "This is why at the last meeting, I supported a freeze of all administrative positions. I get very concerned when I hear we're going to potentially start losing teachers and paraprofessionals that we already have in the district.
"It is a difficult decision to make, but I think … things are coming in far more expensive than we thought."
For their parts, both McCandless and Bergeron spoke at length about their support for the DEIB position but said that the district needs to somehow limit the increase from the FY23 budget.
"We are ethically and morally mandated to have this position," McCandless said. "We are going to be challenged this year to hold onto some positions that we're legally required to have as a public school district.
"I don't think there is a substitute [for a DEIB director]. I'm just not sure that, in taking budgets to our towns that would get passed by the towns that we're able to do everything that is a high priority and legally and morally and ethically mandated."
McCandless told the committee that if either of the two member towns rejects the school budget at its annual town meeting, the district would be forced to either adjust the budget and ask for a special town meeting. And, if the budget continues to fail, live within the constraints of a "one-twelfth" budget, month-to-month, based on the FY23 budget.
"'I've hard School Committee members say, 'the Select Board/the town meeting/the Finance Committee — their job is to figure out how to make it all work, our job is to advocate for kids and kids alone, in complete isolation of the bigger picture; we advocate for our department," McCandless said. "That may be an answer. That may be the answer.
"It's not a good recipe for actually getting a budget through town meeting. It's not a good recipe for building a long and respectful and sustainable relationship with the community you depend on for financial support."
The district is scheduled to make an initial presentation to the Williamstown Finance Committee on Wednesday, March 29; a presentation to the Finance Committee in Lanesborough, which has a later annual town meeting, will be scheduled in April.
On Thursday, March 30, the School Committee will hold its state-mandated public hearing on the budget, and it is scheduled to hold a final vote on the budget it will send to both member towns.
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