Lanesborough voters to decide school funding fairness at special town meeting
LANESBOROUGH — Did the town get a fair deal in the recently revised agreement with Williamstown concerning the Mount Greylock Regional School District?
After much discussion and some frustration, town officials have decided to put the question to voters Tuesday as part of a special town meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. in the auditorium of Lanesborough Elementary School. Other municipal business — including animal regulation, overnight parking bans and door-to-door soliciting/canvassing bylaws — will also be voted on.
The major school funding revision ties property value assessment rates to a five-year rolling rate based on each town's tax base and number of students enrolled in the district.
When the Mount Greylock Regional School District was formed in 1958, which allowed for the towns to join together in constructing the middle and high school building in 1960, the assessment formula established a fixed contribution rate using a 50-50 equalized valuation ratio, a standardized measurement of residential and commercial property value in each town and student enrollment.
The formula was revised in 2010 from a one-year adjustable apportionment to a five-year rolling average.
Based on this, the former assessment split was locked in with Williamstown assessed for 67 percent and Lanesborough at 33 percent.
The enrollment split presently stands at 60 percent Williamstown, 40 percent Lanesborough students.
With the future population in Lanesborough projected to dip more quickly than in Williamstown, and many residents of the former town already grumbling about unfairness, education officials deemed the old agreement unsustainable and negotiated new terms.
Some Lanesborough residents believe the changes didn't go far enough, and have at least the sympathy, if not the outright support, of many town officials.
"Lanesborough wanted more [of a reduction]," Town Administrator Paul Sieloff said. "[The changes] do make the agreement fairer, so people with concerns can be a little more comfortable."
Lanesborough advocates fought for two additional agreement changes aimed at shifting additional school costs to Williamstown — each failed to make the final cut.
The more significant of these would have recognized tax exempt properties in Williamstown as figuring in total assessments. These include properties possibly valued well into the hundreds of millions, such as those owned by Williams College and the Clark Art Institute.
Doing so, according to Lanesborough officials, would more accurately reflected the assets of the two towns — Williamstown cracks $1 billion and possibly approaches $1.5 billion in total valuation while Lanesborough falls well short of half a billion.
"We believe we should somehow recognize the scope of tax exempt properties in Williamstown, and it should really be recognized some way in this agreement," Sieloff said.
Carrie Greene, chairwoman of the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee, who helped negotiate the changes, said the committee looked at Lanesborough's proposal regarding tax-exempt properties and found it easier said than done.
"Williamstown does not assess Williams College property, and there is no mechanism to assess tax exempt property," Greene said.
The state has recommendations, but they are of highly dubious accuracy, according to Greene. "Even if we were able to do it, Williamstown voters would be penalized for properties the town receives no income from."
Additionally, Greene said, the town is already indirectly paying more into the school district on account of the college raising town property values.
Williamstown voters unanimously approved the regional agreement changes at a Nov. 17 special town meeting.
"I expect the Lanesborough voters will support it as well," Greene said. "It's an adjustment that is more dynamic and equitable."
One of Williamstown's wish list items — a circuit breaker saying Lanesborough's assessment could not drop below 25 percent, regardless of population — was also rejected.
If Lanesborough voters decide to reject the terms of the new agreement, education officials from both towns will head back to the drawing board to try to work out a consensus.
Before the changes were discussed, a school committee member in Lanesborough had proposed the nuclear option of pulling out of the district and finding some new arrangement to educate the town's youth.
Prompting such concerns was the estimated $64.8 million renovation of Mount Greylock, now in the design stages, which the district plans to pay for via a 25-year bond.
"We're looking at somewhere between $12 to $15 million dollars [as Lanesborough's share of the cost]," Sieloff said. "We're estimating close to two dollars onto the tax rate, possibly making us the highest in Berkshire County. These are real challenges."
The district expects to take out the bond this spring.
To read the full special town meeting warrant, visit lanesborough-ma.gov.