DALTON -- School officials are considering closing Berkshire Trail Elementary School in Cummington as a way to find significant budget savings.
Central Berkshire Regional School Committee member Billie Henderson, who represents Dalton, suggested on Tuesday that the district could find substantial savings by shutting the school's doors at the end of this school year.
"I know this is a completely unpopular idea," Henderson said at a meeting Tuesday at Nessacus Regional Middle School. "But if we're to make this budget doable for all of our towns, we need to seriously look at it."
Members of the School Committee are searching for ways to ease the tax burden on the district's seven member towns as they work to draft a fiscal 2015 budget.
The termination of Berkshire Trail staff -- six teachers, a principal, several paraprofessionals and custodians -- and ceasing building operation costs would bring a savings of almost $700,000, according to Henderson.
She said Craneville and Kittredge elementary schools, respectively located in Dalton and Hinsdale, could absorb Berkshire Trail's student population of 65.
The committee approved a measure asking Superintendent William Cameron and district officials to run the numbers themselves, but many committee members opposed the idea.
"There are many ways that this hole could be filled," said Sean Nyhan, the committee's Cummington representative. "It doesn't necessarily have to be at the expense of losing an entire building.
Committee Chairman Michael Case, who represents Washington, said it was a "knee-jerk" proposal.
On the other hand, committee member John Conner, a Hinsdale representative, said he wasn't prepared to cut programming and staff at the district's other, larger schools -- the only other option if Berkshire Trail remains.
Last month, the School Committee approved a tentative budget of more than $27 million, which increased assessments to member towns by an average of 7.3 percent. That budget included few cuts.
Passing such a budget would require votes by Dalton and Washington to override Proposition 2.5 -- an unlikely prospect, many believe.
Voter opposition to the budget seemed likely in Dalton, where the town's assessment would increase 9.3 percent -- more than $700,000.
After Dalton saw a steep increase in its fiscal 2014 assessment, the Dalton Select Board requested the School Committee accept no more than a 2 percent bump in fiscal 2015. The board recently said it would not support the tentative fiscal 2015 budget.
In an interview Tuesday, Dalton Town Manager Kenneth Walto said a $200,000 increase was all the town could afford.
"Any more and we're facing a deficit," Walto said.
The extra $500,000 requested of Dalton in the tentative budget would be equivalent to eliminating the town's highway department, defunding 60 percent of its police budget, or deactivating all the town's street lights, Walto said.
According to a plan by Henderson, closing Berkshire Trail and extra savings from elsewhere in the district, would total $797,872, and reduce fiscal 2015 increases in member town assessments to an average of 2 percent.
The district's Finance Committee early last month came with a different proposal that included cuts and reduced the budget by around $450,000, without closing Berkshire Trail, but the School Committee rejected it.
Committee members on Tuesday also requested that district officials use that proposal as a template for the fiscal 2015 budget. Other cuts would need to be necessary to bring the total savings to $800,000, for a target 2 percent increase to member town assessments.
Others, like Conner, said they'd again reject such a budget because it would necessitate staff and programming cuts in the district's primary schools.
Nonetheless, Cameron, per the School Committee's request, hopes to present two budgets at the committee's next meeting on March 13, when it is expected to adopt a final budget.
One would close Berkshire Trail after this school year and the second would keep Berkshire Trail open while including up to $800,000 in programming and staff cuts from the district's other schools.
The superintendent said it's difficult to know how much closing the school might save.
"Nobody knows what would actually happen with the student population once the school is actually closed," Cameron said. "The most prudent assumption is the most conservative -- the least amount of money."
The committee's March 13 meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at Nessacus Middle School.
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