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Still no budget for Pioneer

NORTHFIELD — With the total Pioneer Valley Regional School budget still uncertain and member towns budgeting for a four percent increase on their shares of it, a number of cuts may be made in the coming school year.

“We are in dire straits,” said William Wahlstrom, chairman of the School Committee’s budget subcommittee. State aid to local schools differs greatly in the budgets proposed by the governor and House of Representatives. The Senate still needs to weigh in as well.

“These (differences) won’t be reconciled for some time, we don’t know when,” continued Wahlstrom.

In February, the committee presented a budget proposal seeking a maximum of $14.3 million, a $781,905, or 5.79 percent, increase from the current year’s $13.5 million.

At that time, the committee was working with figures presented in the governor’s budget proposal. It proposed chapter 70 state aid to the district in the amount of $6.05 million, up $21,325 from the current year’s.

Since then, the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee has released its proposal, offering $400 less in chapter 70 aid to the district.

Other revenues are expected to decrease as well. Since the Ways and Means budget was released, the district expects to receive $117,562 less than this year from revenues including School Choice, account interest, transportation reimbursement, out-of-district tuition (expected to increase by $83,189), and other non-town sources.

If all four member towns increase their assessments by 4 percent, it leaves an approximate $606,460 gap between the proposed school budget and what’s expected from the towns and Ways and Means budget.

The district and School Committee are trying to get creative to close that gap.

Since its February budget proposal, the committee voted that any one town’s portion of the school budget shouldn’t go up more than 4 percent.

The committee also voted to put $157,720 of School Choice revenue originally earmarked for computer equipment toward the school budget.

“We’ve come up with a few ways to close or lessen the gap, and none of them are good,” said Wahlstrom.

Doiron said the district may be able to shave about $150,000 right off the top. Personnel savings, she anticipates, could amount to $60,000 in wages and benefits paid to teachers and other employees that are retiring or leaving the district, because replacements would likely fall into a lower slot on the salary scale. Another $40,000 could be pared back in discretionary spending, said Doiron. She also expects to save about $30,000 in health insurance benefits to departing personnel.

Another $14,000 that was paid to educate a child who used School Choice to study outside of the district will no longer need to be paid, she said, because the student has moved out of the Pioneer district.

These measures could close the gap halfway, leaving about $304,740 to go.

Half of that, said Doiron, could be made up by cutting $150,000 from the supplies and services line of the budget, if necessary.

Beyond that, she said, the district will have to consider cuts to programs and staffing. Without final figures from the state, it’s hard to say where and how deep those cuts will be made.

Doiron has asked area legislators to go to bat for the district, advocating for additional aid.

Thursday, she said there have been no breakthroughs since last week’s School Committee meeting.

“We get a little bit of info every day,” said Doiron, but not enough detail to get an idea of what the final school budget and town assessments will be.”

With annual town meetings in PVRSD member towns Northfield and Warwick set for Monday, Leyden meeting May 18, and Bernardston meeting May 29, it’s feasible that none of the towns will see a finalized school budget before voting on their assessments.

The final school budget, when it’s available, must be approved by three of the four towns, a vote likely to come before special town meetings districtwide.

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