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Mount Greylock District to Towns: 'We're Going to Need Help'
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:52AM / Tuesday, March 05, 2024
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Mount Greylock Regional School District officials are predicting budgetary storm clouds in years to come even as they prepare a fiscal year 2025 spending plan that may seem placid to town officials and town meeting voters this spring.
At a special meeting of the School Committee to hold a budget workshop, Assistant Superintendent Joseph Bergeron last week showed the panel a draft FY25 budget that calls for a 3.01 increase in the assessment to Lanesborough and a 3.54 percent hike for Williamstown.
That would represent about the same increase Lanesborough saw for FY24, the fiscal year that ends on June 30. And in Williamstown, where the assessment went up 3.16 percent for FY24, the 3.54 percent rise is a little less than the 4 percent increase the town manager used as a placeholder in a budget he presented to the Finance Committee earlier in the month.
But those projected assessments do not tell the whole story.
The district's gross operating budget is up by 4.4 percent, from $26.3 million in FY24 to $27.4 million for the year that begins on July 1. That rise is mitigated in the FY25 plan by staffing cuts through attrition and higher than customary expenditures from the district's reserve accounts, including a $665,000 transfer from the excess and deficiency account — nearly double the E&D expended for FY24 in a move Bergeron characterized as "drastic."
Excess and deficiency, the district's equivalent of a municipality's "free cash" account, is, as the name implies, the result of higher than expected revenue and lower than expected expenses in any given year. The district's certified E&D number heading into FY25 is $1,081,337, Bergeron said on Thursday.
In addition, the draft budget uses $855,000 from the district's tuition revenue account — about $130,000 more than Mount Greylock expects to receive in tuition payments in FY25.
"Which does not put us into a dangerous spot at all, but it's not sustainable," Bergeron said. "If you look out three, four, give years, this is not something we can do forever."
In fact, he told the School Committee, the funding mechanism overall for FY25 is not sustainable long-term but rather a response to calls from officials in the member towns to hold the line on impacts to local property taxpayers, who also face rising costs from town services.
"The school district is going to need help in the form of revenue in order for it to be the school district people know and love and hopefully that improves what it is able to do over time, as opposed to needing to figure out how to make cuts within what it's able to do," Bergeron said. "That's got to be the story: It's a good partnership [with the member towns], and we're putting out a call for help here.
"We're going to need help."
Drivers to the operating budget increase include a 7 percent increase in the cost of health insurance, previously negotiated salary increases for staff under union contracts and a $300,000 hike in costs for "out of district" placements.
On the expenditure side of the ledger, the district is addressing those increases in part by not replacing three retiring teachers — one each at Lanesborough Elementary and Williamstown Elementary and one at the middle-high school.
School Committee members expressed concern that the cuts could impact instruction. Superintendent Jason McCandless told them he is confident that the district will be able to deliver the same outcomes with fewer staff members.
"I don't believe either of the very strategic uses of attrition at the elementary schools are going to increase class sizes," McCandless said. "It will definitely have an impact, in that, particularly at Lanesborough more than Williamstown, I would foresee a use of School Choice next year that is between almost no new incoming students to very few but at incredibly laser-focused grade areas where it works.
"Will we be able to provide our kids with what they need next year in spite of these reductions we're looking at? Absolutely. And we can say that very honestly. Yes, we will."
McCandless said part of the problem for local school districts is that education distribution from the "millionaires tax" Massachusetts voters approved in 2022 has been, "disappointingly small to those of us who advocated vociferously for that new tax."
McCandless said there is a case to be made that the surtax on income over $1 million approved at the polls was, "a bit of a bait and switch."
The superintendent said he did not know if the district's spending is sustainable in the long term, but he expressed confidence in the near term.
"We can be proud of what we're able to do next year," McCandless said. "We do need to work together to find more sustainable solutions to remain who we want to be and who we feel we owe the students of this community."
With at least two members of the Williamstown Finance Committee observing the virtual meeting in the online audience, Bergeron echoed messaging from that body about the need to grow the local property tax base to sustain all local spending.
"The other way to grow revenue that can go into a district like ours is not by raising property tax rates but by having a larger base across which to spread those property taxes," Bergeron said. "That has to be something we look at."
Later this spring, the district will present its FY25 budget to the Finance Committees in both Lanesborough and Williamstown and will seek positive recommendations from those panels to each community's annual town meeting, where voters have the final say on the omnibus budget.
Longtime School Committee member Carolyn Greene expressed concern that the FY25 plan would reduce the district's E&D reserve to about 2 percent of its operating budget, a lower level than she could remember in her time on the committee.
Bergeron pointed out that in the recent past, the school district has attempted to keep its excess and deficiency line as close as possible to the 5 percent of operating budget allowed by law because bond rating agencies look at E&D when determining the health of a school district. Now that the Mount Greylock building project is fully bonded, that is less of a concern.
One immediate concern is showing fiscal responsibility to town officials. 
"When we say to [town finance committees], 'Would you prefer we either increase [assessments] this year or give everybody a year to plan for more increases next year, I think they'd say, ‘We'd rather you spend the money you have than raise property taxes this year, but we appreciate we're all part of the conversation around what this means for future years,' " Bergeron said.
"It's difficult to walk up to any town Finance Committee and say, 'Let's raise taxes now but keep money in the bank.'"
Bergeron said he did not expect many significant changes between the draft budget he presented on Thursday and the final FY25 budget that the School Committee will be asked to approve after its statutory public hearing on March 14. After that decision, the district will take its spending plan to each member town, first to Williamstown, whose town meeting is held in May, weeks ahead of Lanesborough's.
Later in Thursday's meeting, Greene acknowledged that getting the district's budget through town meeting is a political process with tradeoffs, including recognition that the towns have other budgetary demands.
"While it is our job to advocate for our kids, we are hearing from our administration that we are not diminishing what we can offer in this coming year," Greene said. "But we would be diminishing in the following year if we had to do this again."
Bergeron drove that message home a couple of times on Thursday.
"This [budget] is giving us a year to figure out how to more thoroughly restructure a number of things about Mount Greylock Regional School, for the most part," he said. "It gives us that runway to do it. This is not a moment for us to say: Here are all the different changes to the program of study and the way that we schedule. That is not what we're doing here.
"But if we're in a position like we're in next year, we're giving ourselves a year's notice to say, 'That's the kind of position we'd be in if we were cutting $200,000 or $300,000 in teaching positions.' "
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