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Mount Greylock District Looking to Mitigate Cost Increases in FY25 Budget
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:08AM / Monday, February 12, 2024
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee on Thursday started to hear numbers that will feed the fiscal year 2025 budget that the panel will be asked to approve next month.
Most of the presentation from the district's assistant superintendent and business manager focused on the revenue side of the budget, but Joe Bergeron did offer some insight into some of the increased expenses the regional district will face in the year that begins on July 1.
Since the committee's last gathering, the district got one key piece of data, a 7 percent increase in health insurance costs that will add about $225,000 to what is a $25 million operating budget in FY24.
Bergeron also told the committee that the district is anticipating an increase between $200,000 and $300,000 for out-of-district placements based on changing needs for students in the prekindergarten-Grade 12, two-town district.
On top of those two spikes, there is the increase in teacher and staff salaries driven by the district's collective bargaining agreements with its employees.
In answer to a question from School Committee member Julia Bowen, Bergeron reported that, "at present — and some of this is dependent on the degree to which we'll be conservative with expectations with respect to substitute teaching costs as well as the way schedules impact the need for staff to work extended teaching schedules — we are looking at increases of about $300,000 at Mount Greylock, $170,000 at Lanesborough Elementary School and about $110,000 at Williamstown Elementary School."
In round numbers, that means the committee Thursday heard about the potential for just more than $1 million in increased operating expenses districtwide in FY25.
But Bergeron noted that there are things that could lower the increase in the salary line.
"Those increases are not fully taking into account some of the shifts in ways that we think we can work within retirements," Bergeron said. "They're still coming in. So those numbers are just the — very straightforward, if everyone were to stay on and we were to provide the exact increases specified per our collective bargaining agreements — that's where we would be headed.
"But I think we will be able to soften those a fair amount."
On the other hand, the health insurance and out-of-district placement costs are relatively fixed, as is a 3 percent increase in the district's transportation costs that the committee heard about at its January meeting.
In the current fiscal year, transportation services accounted for about $1.25 million of the bottom line for the district. A 3 percent increase would add about $37,500 to the operating budget.
Bergeron told the School Committee that the district's member towns, Lanesborough and Williamstown, have asked the district to hold to a 3 percent increase in the district's assessments to the town to reflect the lack of revenue growth and the anticipated cost increases for town government operations.
With five weeks to go until the School Committee's planned budget hearing on March 14, the district administration has some work to do.
"If I were to attempt to get everybody to vote on the budget tonight, and if we were not going to be creative at all, we'd be looking at 5 percent [increase] in Lanesborough, 4 percent in Williamstown," Bergeron said. "But that's not what we're going to be moving forward with.
"It's definitely not going to be what we're proposing. We're going to be working on that a lot."
The main thrust of Bergeron's budget presentation on Thursday was to talk about how the district will pay its expenses. He both reviewed the formulas that apportion costs between the two member towns and discussed the district's anticipated state aid from Chapters 70 and 71 based on the Gov. Maura Healey's recently released budget proposal.
Chapter 70 aid for the Mount Greylock district is expected to go up by about $115,000, from $4.9 million in the current fiscal year to $5 million in FY25. Chapter 71, the regional transportation allotment, is expected to go up by $77,220, from $583,000 to $660,000, though Bergeron noted that in FY24, the legislature increased the amount proposed by the governor by the time the final state budget was passed.
"State aid did not come in nearly as rosy as almost any district in the state might like, but that's a position we're all in together," Bergeron said.
Bergeron also walked the School Committee through the district's capital needs at the two elementary schools that have been in use for more than two decades (LES opened in 2001 and WES one year later).
Some of the big-ticket items have potential sources of funding outside assessments to the two towns, like the Green Schoolworks project that the district hopes to use to replace the roofs at both elementary school buildings, and window replacements, which could be funded through a Massachusetts School Building Authority program.
Others, like replacing the floors, are going to be costs for local property taxpayers in the next several years.
"As you walk through Lanesborough Elementary School, the floors are generally in good shape," Bergeron said. "They've been maintained well. But, given the age, we're looking at the correct timing for replacement."
Using an estimate of about $20 per square foot for replacement under current state contracts, Bergeron said the ballpark costs for the two schools would be in the neighborhood of $300,000 at LES and $800,000 at WES.
Other projects include one of the two elementary school boilers..
In Lanesborough, the district and town, which owns the building, just replaced one of two boilers, and the second continues to function.
"We have no reason to believe replacement needs to happen immediately, but, on a preventative scale, it's a high priority for us," Bergeron said.
The replacement cost was pegged at $75,000.
At WES, the district is looking at a $250,000 project in the next four to 10 years to address issues in its HVAC system.
At the end of Thursday's meeting, the School Committee, after an executive session, approved a project not to exceed $225,000 to address the "fire, security door access [and] video upgrades" at Williamstown Elementary School. That money will come from the proceeds of a capital gift from Williams College to the school at its construction; on Thursday, Bergeron reported the current value in the gift to be about $2 million.
The School Committee gave Bergeron permission to proceed with planning to use about $700,000 from the Williams capital gift to fund the replacement project for the two playgrounds at WES. Bergeron reiterated that spending the district's funds would unlock a $300,000 grant of American Rescue Plan Act funds from the town of Williamstown.
Bergeron said he likely would have a proposal for design work for the committee's approval at its Feb. 29 meeting, and he is hoping to complete the playground replacements over the next two summers.
In other business on Thursday, the School Committee heard from Superintendent Jason McCandless on his goals for the next few years in the position and got a look at the 2024-25 academic calendar the administration plans to bring forward for the committee's approval later this winter.
The draft that McCandless showed on Thursday would include a two-week holiday break in December and January, with no classes starting Dec. 23 and classes resuming on Monday, Jan. 6. McCandless said that the Jan. 1 holiday falling on a Wednesday, which happens rarely, led the administrative team to favor the longer closure.
"Our consideration was given what both student and staff attendance could potentially be, given the holiday break that, for some folks, is connected to Christmas, we opted to to extend the break," McCandless said.
The first day of classes in the proposed calendar would be Aug. 28 for students in grades 1 through 12 and Aug. 3 for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten pupils. The projected end date, if the district uses the standard five allowable snow days, would be June 25. This year's projected last day of school — with a continued lack of snow days — is June 12.
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