GREAT BARRINGTON -- The Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee is expected tonight to discuss ways to reduce the district's proposed $23.6 million budget for fiscal 2015.

The budget, which represents a 5.2 percent spending increase over the current spending plan, calls for an average cost increase of 6.71 percent to member towns.

West Stockbridge residents would see costs increase 14.4 percent; in Great Barrington, the increase would be 5.8 percent. Stockbridge residents would face a 3 percent increase.

"It's not different from any other year, but it just seems to be more" because of the proposed high school renovation project, said School Committee Chair-
man Stephen Bannon.

Tonight's meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Monument Valley Regional Middle School.

Bannon declined to provide his opinion on the budget, but he said, "I get the feeling that the School Committee has a wide range of opinions."

The budget, which is expected to be approved by March 6, will likely receive extra scrutiny from tax-fatigued voters in the wake of the district's proposed multi-million dollar renovation to Monument Mountain Regional High School.

The proposed $56 million project's failure was attributed to tax fatigue in Great Barrington, whose voters rejected spending for the project; the other district towns -- West Stockbridge and Stockbridge -- approved the project. The state has permitted the district another vote on the project, and school officials said the vote would be contingent on how much the state allows the district to cut.

In previous years, the district has been able to lighten the financial burden associated with rising health care cost by relying on district reserves. However, the taxpayers will bear the brunt of a $336,223 increase in health care costs.

In addition to health care, the other leading reasons for the budget increase are electricity rates, salary, educational services, and necessary replacements for capital assets, according to Business Administrator Sharon Harrison.

The increase is also in part attributable to an increase in the minimum local contribution. Each of the three towns are paying more, which includes $263,000 more in Great Barrington, $52,000 in Stockbridge, and $147,000 in West Stockbridge.

Sixty percent of the cost increase is associated with mandatory increases, according to BHRSD Business Administrator Sharon Harr-
ison, which includes increases associated with contracted services and benefits. Salaries total 30 percent of the change and then "all other purchases," which relate to software and other purchases account for the rest, according to Harrison.

The district is currently involved in extensive discussion that could lead to potential savings. These discussions include re-negotiating rates for tuitioned-in students from Farmington River Regional Elementary School and Rich-
mond Consolidated School. Berkshire Hills officials also were scheduled to meet with Southern Berkshire Regional School District officials for the first time Wednesday to discuss ways the district can work together to reduce costs.

"The district is the busiest I have ever seen it," Bannon said. "There is more discussion on about consolidation, collaboration and renovations and negotiations, and I've never seen it this busy. We want to keep the highest level of education but we want to keep the costs down."

To reach John Sakata:
jsakata@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6240.
On Twitter: @jsakata