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PVRS district budget up, state aid stagnant

NORTHFIELD — A proposed $14.3 million school budget has sparked much debate between town officials and School Committee members.

Though the proposal seeks an increase of $781,905, or 5.79 percent, from this year’s $13.5 million budget, most of it will come from the member towns, as state aid is expected to increase only by about $21,325.

The proposal is the maximum the district can ask for. It is likely to be whittled down, as officials from Northfield, Bernardston, Leyden and Warwick meet with the School Committee’s budget subcommittee to determine what the towns can afford to pay.

The governor’s proposed state budget includes $4 million for the district, which, however, could change depending on the Legislature’s action.

Though the estimated state aid is up a bit, the district expects a $17,807 decrease in regional school transportation reimbursements from the state. This is partially due to decreased ridership, said Superintendent Dayle Doiron. Doiron said that state had set up transportation reimbursements as an incentive for rural areas to regionalize their schools. At the time, she said, the state promised to pay back 100 percent of districts’ transportation costs.

“It’s never been 100 percent,” she said. “It’s been as high as 90 percent some years, and this year, it was 54 percent.”

Member towns’ expected minimum contributions are up in all but Leyden, which has a projected decrease of $100,179, due to students leaving the district to attend Franklin County Technical School, causing an increase in Leyden’s contribution to the Tech School budget.

School Committee member Jed Proujansky of Northfield said a budget increase is needed to fund things the district has been putting off.

“We haven’t bought books (in about five years), and we’ve had smaller staff increases,” he said. “In the last number of years, we’ve tried to work toward a level-service budget, then toward keeping the budget as flat as we could. It means that, for the same amount, we’re getting less each year.”

Other increases come from postponed cost-of-living adjustments included in the new three-year teachers’ contract, and an increase in the cost of health and other insurances afforded to employees and retirees.

Aside from state aid and reimbursements, grants, and member town assessments, the district receives revenue from students who opt into the district through School Choice, as well as an agreement with the town of Vernon, Vt.

School Choice students each bring about $5,000 to the district, and more for those with qualifying special needs. This school year, the district had 170 students choice-in, and only 30 choice-out to other schools.

Vernon sends 59 students to the district, at a rate of just under $11,000 per student, said Doiron.

However, nine students from member towns go to charter schools rather than those in the district, and with each goes $13,692.

Proujansky said it’s crucial to keep the school’s reputation for a quality education, to keep out-of-district parents sending their children to district schools.

“The quality of our education brings kids and money into the district, which allows us to maintain the quality of education,” he said. “If we don’t maintain the quality, less kids choice-in, and the money drops off faster.”

Doiron said the district only accepts as many students as it can accommodate without increasing staff.

What do the towns think?

“The Northfield Finance Committee has discussed it, and we feel we’re able to go up by $90,415, which is about 2 percent,” said Lois Stearns, chairwoman of that committee.

“We determined that we can go up by 2.5 percent, or $56,667.28,” said Brian Hervieux, of the Bernardston Finance Committee.

“We can’t keep throwing money at a problem that won’t go away,” said Jane Dutcher, chairwoman of the Bernardston Finance Committee.

Leyden’s Finance Committee has not yet met to discuss what the town can afford to put toward schools next year, according to committee member Michelle Giarusso. Despite the decrease in the town’s minimum contribution, Giarusso said she feels Leyden will step up to the plate to help fund the district.

“We’re not going to stick it to the towns,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”

“Warwick said they’re budgeting for a 4.5 percent increase,” said Doiron. Members of the town’s Selectboard and Finance Committee did not make it to Thursday’s budget meeting.

Now, the budget subcommittee will go back to the drawing board, and come up with a new figure to present to the towns. Meanwhile, the various towns’ finance committees will each meet to determine what kind of an increase their towns can afford.

“We need to see how innovative (towns) and the committee can be to try to bring these numbers closer together,” said Proujansky.

The budget subcommittee will meet with town officials again at 7 p.m. March 26, at Pioneer.

Those at Thursday’s meeting agreed that the state could help cash-strapped towns a little more.

“The state has washed its hands of (schools), and said ‘it’s up to the towns to figure it out,’” said Proujansky.

“The state needs to put its money where its mandates are,” said William Wahlstrom, chairman of the budget subcommittee.

His words were met with applause.

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

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