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Bernardston voters reach compromise on school budget

Depending on other Pioneer district towns, it may not matter

BERNARDSTON — The Pioneer Valley Regional School District budget remains uncertain after town meeting voters approved $162,950 less than their share of the proposed school spending.

For the budget to pass, it needs to be supported by three of the district’s four towns. While the requested amount was approved by the Warwick, Leyden and Northfield town meetings, Northfield voters were told their approval would hinge on the passage of a Proposition 2 1/ 2 override vote. Failing that, Northfield’s approved assessment would be the lesser $3.87 million written on the warrant, before the town amended it to the full requested amount.

Pioneer Superintendent Dayle Doiron said Northfield may be stuck paying the full amount, because the motion to allow for an override said that other town items, as well as the school budget, are contingent on the override vote.

Bernardston’s approved amount represents a compromise between the district requested 10.9 percent increase, and the 2.5 percent the Selectboard and Finance Committee said the town could afford.

“After looking at things, we think we can afford a 4 percent increase,” said Selectman Robert Raymond.

The district had sought a $2.61 million assessment from the town, and town officials initially supported a $2.41 million budget, a 2.5 percent increase, but increased the amount on the town meeting floor.

Before Raymond could propose the amendment, School Committee member and resident James Ruder proposed that the town pay the full amount. Ruder’s amendment went to a paper ballot vote, and was defeated 90-41.

Ruder’s failed amendment elicited almost an hour of debate. Some said the school costs were growing out of control, despite stagnant wages for most workers.

“All of us have to tighten our belts at home, and it’s not unreasonable to say the schools need to tighten their belts, too,” said Jean Milton.

“If communities, one after the other, say we can’t continue to (pay rising school costs), the state might do something,” said Ann Marie Howard. “If we continue to pay, though, they’ll say ‘keep going.’”

Others argued that a good education is worth the increased cost.

“We have an incredible school system. Inside those buildings, professionals work every day to teach our children,” said Frank Ribiero. “They cost money. It’s as simple as that.”

“Over the last several years, we’ve trimmed, trimmed, trimmed the budget every place we could,” said Doiron. “The only place to turn for a reduction now is staffing, and it would be a significant number of staff.”

The district’s requested budget is $225,000 less than it initially sought, after officials were able to cut three teaching positions due to projected enrollment and teachers that plan to not return next year.

Doiron said that the district has worked hard to keep costs low, with the total school budget is up less than 5 percent in the last six years. Drop-offs in state funding, however, have put more of the burden on the towns, she said.

“If revenues have decreased, somehow you’ve got to decrease expenses,” Raymond countered. “This isn’t the government in Washington, D.C., where we can just keep printing money.”

If the town’s share of the budget continues to increase 4 percent each year, he said, it would be up 50 percent within a decade, costing the town about $3.9 million in 2025.

The town’s $231,964 share of the Franklin County Technical School budget passed without debate.

Another Pioneer request was also the subject of much discussion.

A $400,000 districtwide computer and software replacement plan will go forward, after Bernardston voters gave their approval. The district plans to borrow the money for a five-year period, with each town paying a portion proportionate to their shares of the budget.

Doiron said the district will bring in a consultant to review the plan, making sure it is cost-efficient and geared toward addressing future concerns and taking care of the fiber-optic Internet backbone recently installed in western Massachusetts. The district won’t go forward without the plan having a second look, she said.

Voters also approved $35,000 for a n ew police cruiser, $30,000 to put toward future bridge repairs, and $10,000 toward a new town master plan.

You can reach David Rainville at: drainville@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279 On Twitter follow @RecorderRain

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