Berkshire Hills schools budget up over 4 percent, but major staff, program cuts avoided

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Despite increases in annual costs, Berkshire Hills Regional School District officials have managed to preserve some staff and programs without rocking residents with hefty tax hikes.

During a School Committee meeting Thursday, members praised the creative work of the finance subcommittee to rescue the jobs of two teachers — one in design and the other in science.

"It's a major victory," said School Committee member Richard Dohoney.

The district also will, through attrition, remove one aide from Muddy Brook Elementary School, and half an English teacher position plus two aides from Monument Mountain Regional High School.

Preliminary numbers released in December showed a 9 percent increase over last year.

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But, officials, wary of bringing that to the towns, rearranged the money and programs to slash operating costs and bring the total proposed 2021 budget to $23.8 million, a 4.7 percent increase over last year. Also, operating revenue and a shrinking capital budget helped lower it further. A public hearing on the budget will be held Feb. 27 at Monument Valley Regional Middle School.

Under this budget, Great Barrington, which sends more than 70 percent of students to the district, would pay about $17.6 million — an increase of about 5 percent. The West Stockbridge assessment would increase 5.3 percent, to $3.3 million. And Stockbridge would pay $2.9 million, a 2 percent increase.

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"We have fixed costs that keep going up," Superintendent Peter Dillon said at a budget presentation Thursday.

Those costs include annual hikes in insurance, salary and transportation. And like other rural districts, Berkshire Hills struggles with reduced state aid and declining enrollments.

The district offset some of the increases by applying for federal grants to support struggling students at the middle school, which helped avoid cutting two positions.

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Still, Berkshire Hills faces long-term challenges. Officials are considering a potential rebuild of the deteriorating Monument Mountain Regional High School, prompting the district to explore consolidating with the neighboring Southern Berkshire Regional School District.

Also, Berkshire Hills will suffer a loss of $250,000 in tuition from the Farmington River Regional School District, which sends high school students to Monument.

But, a reimbursement from the Massachusetts School Building Authority for construction of the elementary and middle schools helped offset the capital budget, the bulk of which is debt from those projects. That debt soon will be paid completely down, Dillon said.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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