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Bernardston: Should we leave Pioneer school district?

Recorder file photo
Students play outside the entrance to Bernardston Elementary School.

Recorder file photo Students play outside the entrance to Bernardston Elementary School.

BERNARDSTON — Sick of ever-inflating school costs, the town will look into the logistics of leaving the Pioneer Valley Regional School District.

The town faces an increase of about $330,000, or 14 percent, in its share of the district budget for next year. A Proposition 2 1/ 2 override would be required if the request holds and the town approves requests for capital expenditures at its annual town meeting.

If all expenditures are approved, the town would be about $31,000 in excess of its property tax cap, triggering the override vote, said Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Dutcher. It could be avoided by a combination of cuts to the town’s operating budget and capital expenditures, though Dutcher cautioned that doing so wouldn’t address the ever-increasing school budget.

If all expenses are approved as they stand, and the override vote passed, the town’s tax rate would rise from $17.48 per thousand to about $19.38. Members of the Finance Committee and Selectboard have said that the $1.90 hike is unacceptable.

Though the town could vote a lower school budget amount at its annual meeting, it may be ineffective. It only takes three of the district’s four towns to approve a total budget, and Bernardston’s town meeting comes last. If Northfield, Leyden and Warwick have agreed on a budget before then, Bernardston will have no choice in the matter.

If the town leaves the district, however, it would have much more oversight on school costs. Officials are uncertain, though, if withdrawing from the district would save the town money or end up costing more.

The idea was brought up during a joint meeting of the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee Monday. The Finance Committee decided to convene a committee to look into the logistics and costs of leaving the district.

The town owns its elementary school, and could continue to operate it on its own, though it may need additional administration. Its older students would need to be educated in other area schools, though, since the town doesn’t have its own middle or high schools.

The cost of sending students to other schools is uncertain. Though School Choice allows students to attend outside schools at a rate of about $5,000 per pupil, School Choice would not be an option if the town did not belong to a district that had its own high and middle schools.

Pioneer currently accepts students from Vernon, Vt., on a tuition basis, with Vernon paying about $11,000 for each student it sends to Pioneer. Similar agreements could be drafted to send Bernardston students to other schools, though each receiving school would set its own tuition rate.

The earliest the town could withdraw from the district is the 2017 fiscal year, which coincides with the 2016-2017 school year. The district agreement states that a town can only withdraw if a majority of the town meeting decides to do so one year prior, and the town owes no money to the school when the withdrawal takes effect.

Bernardston is still paying off its share of debt incurred by renovations at Pioneer Valley Regional School. By fiscal year 2017, though, the town will have paid it off.

The town could find itself incurring additional school debt this year, though. The district seeks to borrow about $400,000 for technology upgrades, to be paid over a five-year term.

The way the borrowing is proposed, towns would not need to approve the debt, but could vote it down by way of a town meeting article. The Finance Committee suggested that the town meeting be asked to opt out of the new debt.

If the district does borrow the money, though, the town could still leave the district in fiscal year 2017, as long as it paid off its share of the debt early.

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

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