DALTON -- Central Berkshire Regional School District will trim expenses rather than close Berkshire Trail Elementary School next year.
Dozens of parents and residents applauded as 10 of 12 committee members approved a $26.5 million fiscal 2015 budget at a meeting Thursday at Nessacus Regional Middle School.
The ratified budget reduced the district's tentative budget by nearly $500,000 through hours and staff cuts equivalent to 4.7 positions, a 30 percent dip in Craneville Elementary School general education supply spending and by capping a preschool program at its present enrollment.
But it did not allow Cummington's elementary school, Berkshire Trail, home to 65 K-12 and 14 preschool students, to close after this year, as another budget reduction scenario under consideration Thursday would have.
"I think it was the sensible thing to do," said Superintendent William Cameron. "It's not a painless budget, but it doesn't do the damage that the other proposal would have."
"The School Committee has a responsibility and with this budget has given us direction," said Assistant Superintendent Robert Putnum.
However, the district has commissioned a study into the feasibility of maintaining Berkshire Trail in the future.
"It may have to [be closed in 2015-16], but all options really need to be looked at," said George Desmarais, a committee member who represents Dalton. "I think everybody on the committee has the kids in mind. But we also don't live in a utopian world where we can provide the absolute best education regardless of cost. It comes into the equation, unfortunately."
Last week, the School Committee asked district officials to prepare two alternatives to the tentative budget. They did so at the demand of officials from among the district's seven member towns, particularly Dalton, the largest, who objected to average assessment increases of 7.3 percent that would have occurred under the tentative budget.
Presented Thursday, one of these budgets purported almost $800,000 in savings by closing Berkshire Trail in 2014-15 and other cuts, while the other generated around the same amount of savings by the aforementioned cuts and more.
Instead, the committee chose a third way, limiting the second proposal's harmful cuts and reducing the budget by the aforementioned amount. The budget passed Thursday will increase the district's total budget by 2.77 percent and the average member town assessment by 2.9 percent over 2013-14, as opposed to 4.5 and 7.3 in the tentative budget.
A dissenting voice, committee member John Conner, who represents Hinsdale, said the district's present finances aren't sustainable and it should seek all possible savings to protect it against annually growing retirement and benefits costs.
John Les of Becket, the other committee member who opposed the budget, favored the tentative budget, which made no cuts at all.
Cameron, however, said he had doubts as to whether the required five of seven member towns would have approved the tentative budget.
During Thursday's deliberations, a $65,000 Nessacus librarian position, cut in the budget proposal, was reinstated, to be paid for by excess and deficiency funds.
The addition completely exhausted the district's $1.2 million in excess and deficiency funds.
"If any catastrophe happens, we'll be coming at you real quick for special town meetings," said School Committee Chairman Michael Case.
John Boyle, Dalton Select Board Chairman, said he thinks the budget will pass muster with voters in the town, where opposition was considered most likely.
"Even though we still feel we are being over-zinged, it is the consensus [of town officials] that Dalton could very well support this budget," Boyle said.
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