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Property values and the population of school-age kids are up in Stockbridge. So is the cost of education

Children wearing masks sitting on colorful classroom rug, one raising hand

Students sit on a carpet for a lesson in Emma Haskel’s first grade classroom at Muddy Brook Elementary School in Great Barrington. Stockbridge residents will pay about 14 percent more next year to send their children to Berkshire Hills Regional School District.

STOCKBRIDGE — Town residents will pay about 14 percent more next year to send their children to Berkshire Hills Regional School District.

During a recent presentation to a joint meeting of the town Select Board and Finance Committee, schools Superintendent Peter Dillon said the district is requesting an assessment of nearly $3.6 million from the town in the coming year — an increase of about $433,000.

“It’s a heavy lift and I’m sorry about it,” Dillon said. “It’s extraordinarily complicated.”

He cited three reasons for the steep increase:

• Stockbridge is sending seven more students to Berkshire Hills this year, a total of 118 compared to 111 last year. “The bad news is that it costs you more money, the good news is that there are more kids living in town,” Dillon commented.

• The assessment is based on the total number of students in the three-town district — Great Barrington and West Stockbridge, as well as Stockbridge. Since Great Barrington’s student enrollment dropped by 19, that caused an outsized increase for Stockbridge’s slice of the education pie.

• The state’s formula for town-by-town education spending — a legal obligation called the minimum local contribution — is tied to the assessed value of a community’s properties. Stockbridge’s state-mandated obligation soared by about $250,000 as real estate assessments soared. In the past six years, the town’s share declined or went up only slightly, Dillon pointed out.

The average single-family property’s assessed value in Stockbridge went from $525,000 to $600,000 this year, Selectman Patrick White pointed out. Half of the education spending surge is caused by “the robust increase in our property values,” he said.

Dillon also noted that the district returned $76,000 to the town from its cash reserves, making the net education spending increase 11 percent compared to last year.

Of Berkshire Hills’s total enrollment of 1,217 students, Finance Committee Chairman Jay Bikofsky noted, 217 are school-choice students from other districts. Those “sending districts” pay only $5,000 per student toward the cost of education, a figure unchanged since 1993 when the state’s education reform law took effect. The actual cost to educate each Berkshire Hills student is about $23,000, according to the state Education Department.

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Questioned by Finance Committee member Jim Balfanz about the proposed hiring of a district communications specialist for $50,000, Dillon defended the expense as funded by “free cash” reserves. The total Berkshire Hills budget is about $31 million, defrayed by about $4 million in grants, he said.

“Our external communications aren’t so good,” Dillon commented, despite very supportive coverage from area news media.

“Our broader communications are lacking,” he said, “for people who aren’t directly connected to the schools.” He cited a deficient website and social media presence.

He acknowledged that support for the new post was less than enthusiastic among some in the district.

“It strikes a sore nerve with a lot of people, the teachers are angry about it,” he said. “It keeps coming up in conversations; it seems like ancillary or fluff.”

The district has added a second school psychologist at the high school, Dillon told the town officials, and two social workers — one for the middle school and another for the high school to help support students with special needs. Also added: A board-certified behavior analyst to work with students who are autistic or on the spectrum.

One of the three art teacher positions at Monument Mountain High has been eliminated. A social studies/business education position also was cut.

Two additional English As a Second Language (ESL) teachers have been hired, as the district has seen “an influx of immigrants, mostly Spanish-speaking,” Dillon stated. Thirteen percent of the district’s students are in the ESL program, he added, up from 4 percent in 2009.

About half of the district’s students come from low-income families, based on the schools’ free and reduced-price lunch programs, Dillon said. “The community is really changing,” he said.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or on Twitter @BE_cfanto.

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