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Pioneer cuts $225,000 from proposed budget

BERNARDSTON — The Pioneer Valley Regional School Committee has lowered its proposed budget by nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

The district was able to reduce costs by cutting three teachers. The district will be able to avoid layoffs or firings, because the employees are either leaving the district or not returning from leaves of absence, according to Superintendent Dayle Doiron.

Now that the schools have a better estimate of next year’s enrollment, Doiron said, it was determined that one teacher each could be cut from the Bernardston and Northfield elementary schools, and a third teacher yet to be named.

The $225,000 savings would come in the form of both salaries and benefits. The cuts were approved by the School Committee in a Thursday meeting at Bernardston Elementary School.

The original proposed budget called for an increase of $1.05 million in town assessments, or 13.97 percent. Despite the cuts, the district’s four towns will still be asked to pay a total of $8.3 million, which is $821,584, or 10.97 percent, more than this year.

Officials from member towns have told the School Committee they couldn’t afford more than a 2.5 percent increase.

Bernardston’s Finance Committee said that if the original figures held and voters approved all capital requests at town meeting, the town could be faced with a Proposition 21/ 2 override vote. Chairwoman Jane Dutcher said the town would have been about $31,000 in excess of its property tax limit.

With Bernardston’s assessment now $72,945 lower than originally proposed, it appears that the danger of an override vote has been avoided.

Reasons for rising assessments

There are several factors that contribute to rising town assessments.

Costs are growing faster than state aid is increased, and other revenues, like School Choice and out-of-state tuition, are declining.

Students from Vernon, Vt., have been sent to Pioneer schools for years, with Vernon paying about $11,000 per student. This year, said Doiron, there are 58 Vernon students in the district, but she expects that to drop to 46 students next year.

Next year, the district plans to use $675,000 from School Choice revenue, down from this year’s $927,247.

For the last six years, the district has used surplus School Choice funds to offset assessments. That surplus was depleted this year, said Doiron.

The towns’ shares of the budget could still come down. Doiron said regional school districts across the state could get a boost in a transportation reimbursement from the state.

The preliminary state budget would reimburse the district for $418,142, or 52.7 percent of $793,260 in transportation expenses for Pioneer. Massachusetts law requires the state to reimburse 100 percent of regional school transportation costs, but the state has failed to provide that level of funding for years.

Chapter 70 state aid to schools should stay the same, said Doiron, as the state House of Representatives has approved the same $20,500 increase to the district’s aid as the governor proposed in his draft budget.

The state’s budget process is still underway, and subject to change.

Town-by-town increases

Under current figures, Northfield would see the biggest increase, at $473,271, or 12.71 percent. The town is on the hook for 50.89 percent of the member towns’ share of the school budget, under a state-provided formula based largely on a five-year-average enrollment.

Bernardston’s 32.43 percent share would mean an increase of 10.91 percent, or $257,274. Warwick would pay an additional $88,183, or 12.86 percent, and Leyden would see a 3.34 percent increase of $24,232.

The towns could also lower the budget by approving less than they’ve been asked for.

The budget is voted at each town’s annual town meeting, and it takes three of four towns to approve a total budget.

If two towns vote for less than requested, the total school budget would be adjusted to reflect the approved amounts, using the town-by-town percentages set by the state.

The School Committee would then reconvene and attempt to come up with a new budget. If that new budget is more than approved in the towns, special town meetings would have to be held within 30 days of a new budget proposal, to vote on the difference.

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

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