Pioneer presents $16.9M budget for FY25

The Pioneer Valley Regional School District laid out its fiscal year 2025 budget Thursday evening. The School Committee will discuss and vote on the budget at its Feb. 15 meeting.

The Pioneer Valley Regional School District laid out its fiscal year 2025 budget Thursday evening. The School Committee will discuss and vote on the budget at its Feb. 15 meeting. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

From left, Pioneer Valley Regional School District Director of Finance and Operations Jordan Burns, Superintendent Patricia Kinsella, School Committee Chair Reina Dastous and School Committee member Melissa Gerry at the district’s budget hearing Thursday evening.

From left, Pioneer Valley Regional School District Director of Finance and Operations Jordan Burns, Superintendent Patricia Kinsella, School Committee Chair Reina Dastous and School Committee member Melissa Gerry at the district’s budget hearing Thursday evening. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 02-12-2024 11:18 AM

NORTHFIELD — As the Pioneer Valley Regional School District’s proposed fiscal year 2025 budget takes shape, administrators are emphasizing they want to continue to make “big investments” in Pioneer’s students.

Director of Finance and Operations Jordan Burns laid out a roughly $16.94 million budget proposal on Thursday, representing about a 0.72%, or $120,400, increase from the current fiscal year’s budget. Town assessment increases hovered around 3% for all three towns, which Burns said was their anticipated target.

“Our focus is making key investments, having really enviable class sizes at the elementary [schools] and continuing the investments we started in FY24, like the woodshop and environmental educator,” Burns said. “But at the same time, ensuring the growth of spending is reasonable, so we don’t need large assessment increases to support all those investments. I’m really happy we were able to do all of those things in a single budget.”

In terms of assessments, Bernardston’s is increasing by 3.64%, Leyden’s by 3.74% and Northfield’s by 2.43%. In October, the district returned $740,000 to the towns because of higher-than-anticipated revenues, sending $297,961 to Bernardston, $62,474 to Leyden and $379,779 to Northfield, which the district said should hopefully lessen the impacts of this year’s assessments.

As it was last year, administrative pay was the main focus of discussion on Thursday, which kicked off with Bernardston Selectboard member Brian Keir drawing attention to the elimination of 1.5 full-time equivalent positions — the district nurse leader position’s line item was slashed to $5,000 from $78,000. He asked if the district had taken a proportional look at student enrollment and administrative pay.

Burns said student enrollment can be a good factor to consider for certain positions, but some positions, such as his, will always be required regardless of how many students attend a district.

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“You have to have somebody full-time because the reporting requirements are still the same … no matter how many students you have,” he explained, adding that the district takes a close look every year at positions in an effort to be a good partner with the towns. “I think we’re committed to being reasonable. … It’s not our money, it’s the public’s money. … We need to be cognizant of that every year.”

Cathy Hawkins-Harrison, who recently retired from the district, and Bernardston Elementary School staff member Melissa Peloquin also raised some questions about administrator pay, especially in comparison to teachers and other staff members and how that can be explained to the people “on the steps of Mim’s.”

“These are big raises that are not commensurate with what teachers got in their contract negotiations,” Hawkins-Harrison said, “so what is the layman’s answer to the normal person in those three towns?”

Burns said administrator pay “often comes down to being competitive” and if pay isn’t in the same range as other opportunities in the area, staff are likely to leave, which can disrupt continuity in district operations.

Burns’ salary is increasing by 21.74%, or $25,000, in the proposed FY25 budget to a total of $140,000. However, he noted this raise was because he did not take pay increases in the first years of his contract. In FY23, he earned $125,000 and in FY24, he earned less, with the final line item coming out to $115,000.

“It’s fine to be the lowest paid among [comparable jobs], but if you’re the lowest paid by multiple tens of thousands of dollars, the question is, is that sustainable as a plan for maintaining continuity?” Burns said. “When there was a lot of changeover, that probably led to some of the issues the district may have experienced in the past. I would hazard a guess that it did.”

School Committee member Stephen Martin said the “return on investment” for the school administration has been great for the district and trying to cut costs on important positions would be like “saving money on shoes by cutting off our feet.”

“In my experience, the people we have are incredibly good and to speak directly to Jordan’s work, for example, he has saved us so much money and allowed so much opportunity,” Martin said, adding that they have “very special” staff and teachers in the district, too. “We really need to have the experts who are valuable people, and they will be picked by other school districts if we don’t pay them a competitive wage.”

All budget documents for FY25 can be found on the district’s budget development page at bit.ly/3SxQh4m. A recording of Thursday’s presentation and discussion can be found at bit.ly/497iaY8.

The School Committee will discuss and take a vote on the budget on Thursday, Feb. 15, at 6 p.m. in Pioneer’s library before bringing the budget forward for Annual Town Meeting votes in Northfield, Bernardston and Leyden.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.