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Deerfield wants Frontier cuts, too

DEERFIELD — Conway has found a partner in Deerfield in its call for a smaller Frontier Regional School budget.

After a four-hour budget meeting on Tuesday, the Deerfield Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee each unanimously agreed to team up with their neighbors in Conway to demand the Frontier Regional School District not increase its budget by more than 3 percent.

“We can’t cut everything in town for a school with declining enrollment and an unquestioned budget,” said Selectman Elizabeth Clarke. “I’d like to stop saying we can’t affect the budget and start trying to affect the budget.”

The town will lobby its Frontier partners —Whately, Sunderland and Conway — to come to a consensus on how to deal with the school budget. A day earlier, the Conway Finance Committee voted to not recommend the school budget request in light of Proposition 2½ tax caps and slow growth in the property tax base. The Finance Committee also wrote a letter to Superintendent Regina Nash requesting the school district keep its overall operational budget increase to 2.5 percent.

The Deerfield Selectmen and Finance Committee would write its own letter to the school district with the same demands.

If the school district meets the request, the two towns would fund the budget no matter how the town assessments are split.

“What do you want to cut? The library, the police department, fire department, ambulance, to have Frontier blow through all the available tax money?” asked Clarke.

As a result, the School Committee has set a joint meeting for Sept. 12 at the school for the four town selectboards and finance committees to discuss the regional agreement, the school budget and the capital improvement process among other ideas. The Conway, Deerfield and Sunderland boards have recently expressed interest in holding a joint meeting.

The towns are asking the school district to cut its budget increase requests in half.

The proposed school budget is $9,545,088. It increased by $447,832, or 4.92 percent, from the current school year. The School Committee is asking the towns to pay 6.65 percent more than they did last year toward the total.

Deerfield would pay 9.32 percent more than the current year. Conway would pay 16.3 percent more. Sunderland would pay 1.06 percent more. Whately, on the other hand, would see a percentage decrease of 1 percent.

Deerfield would pay $3,260,522. Conway would pay $1,061,388. Sunderland would provide $1,737,316 and Whately would give $925,545.

However, the Frontier School Committee has made attempts to decrease its budget by taking $40,000 of its surplus to lower the town assessments.

Another complaint is that the school budget continually increases while student enrollment decreases. Including School Choice students, there were 621 students in 2012 compared to 654 the previous year.

To address declining enrollment, the School Committee cut five teachers from the middle school last year.

Like most western Massachusetts schools, Frontier is losing its native student population. Frontier, however, has maintained its School Choice students. It averages 120 to 130 School Choice students each year. And the state provides $5,000 for each of those students.

“Everyone has lost native population,” said Superintendent Regina Nash. “We’ve been fortunate to keep School Choice students all along.”

Nash said the budget only includes “what is necessary to run a good educational program. We don’t have extra in the budget.”

Nash attributed the increasing budget to costs beyond the school’s control, including utilities, salaries and insurance. In addition, the number of special education students out of district and their tuition is increasing. Up to the sixth grade, special education costs are spread throughout four elementary school budgets. In Grade 7, the costs come into one Frontier budget, Nash said.

The school district also needs to keep up with new initiatives, such as Common Core standards, the new educator evaluator system and technology.

Next year’s budget does add $14,561 for a technology director, $5,000 for technology professional development and $23,000 to complete the school’s wireless connectivity.

Despite the selectboards’ and finance committees’ dissatisfaction with the school budget, it is still up for the townspeople to make the final decision.

“I’m very optimistic once everyone understands the needs of the school. I’m hopeful the selectboards will support it and the townspeople will support it,” said Nash.

If the Frontier budget request does not get three towns’ support, the school district is obligated to return with another budget at a special town meeting.

You can reach Kathleen McKiernan at:
kmckiernan@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261 ext. 268.

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