School district merger committee faces $150,000 shortfall

Jake Eberwein, project manager for the Eight Town Regional School District Planning Board, presents his budget projections for fiscal year 2023 at the board meeting on Tuesday, August 23. Screenshot by Shaw Israel Izikson.

The Berkshires — The Eight Town Regional School District Planning Board is considering a $150,000 shortfall in its budget.

The board has been working on the potential merger of the Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire regional school districts. Over the past few months, as part of the potential merger, the board has been exploring a model that would create a new combined high school in Great Barrington for grades 9-12, with grades 6-8 remaining at Mt. Everett Regional High School in Sheffield.

At the board meeting on Tuesday, August 23, project manager Jake Eberwein presented his budget projections for fiscal year 2023 in which he revealed the potential shortfall. Council chair Lucy Prashker told members that, as Eberwein predicted, the council would run out of money by October 1.

Prashker said the council should formally reach out to member cities to request funding. “I think the timing is a challenge,” Prashker said. “Going back to the cities and making the request, calling special town meetings and voting, that won’t happen in time for October. So we won’t have any more money and we won’t be supported this fall unless we find other sources of funding.

Board member Jonathan Sylbert, who serves as chair of Monterey’s finance committee, then introduced a motion asking the two school districts to pay for the shortfall through the rural aid they received. However, there were discussions and debates on whether or not the two districts received equivalent rural aid.

Eventually, Sylbert amended his motion to recommend that the two districts pay $60,000 each to make up $120,000 to pay for the shortfall.

This caused further discussion and debate over whether or not the deficit should be funded by rural aid, American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, or some other way. Stockbridge Select Board member Patrick White said he had a problem with school districts using rural aid to make up for lost revenue.

“We can use ARPA funds for government purposes and a vote of this town’s select committee,” White said. “Stockbridge still has over $300,000 in unallocated ARPA funds, and I might put that on the next agenda and get a vote on it. With the vote of the Restricted Council, we can justify this as an unforeseen expense and also transfer money between the city’s reserve fund and ARPA funds. My suggestion is that we make a motion for $25,000 from each city. If some cities can’t do that, because they’ve already allocated all their funds, I wouldn’t have a problem, so that might be a little more than what’s needed. I just don’t think the only option we have is these rural funds.

“I have to speak out against this,” said Southern Berkshire Regional School District committee member Bonnie Silvers. “As a member of the school committee and as a citizen of Sheffield, I fail to see how taking our rural aid and investing it in this can do anything other than genuinely irritate our constituents. If the cities have chosen to vote to put their city’s money, it’s separate. But I don’t think we would be financially responsible for our actions if we had to take that rural help and hand it over to this effort. said Prashker.

Eventually, after a long discussion, as well as several moments of budget calculations by council members, Colin Smith, a member of Sheffield’s finance committee, amended the motion so that the committee formally requested $14,000 from each of the eight towns. and $20,000 to each school district to make up the budget shortfall.

Unlike Sylbert’s original motion asking school districts for rural aid funding, Smith’s amendment did not specify where city and school district funding should come from.

“I would like to emphasize to this band that this is a once in a generation project,” White said. “It’s not up to me to decide whether my city supports it or not, because we’re going to present it to voters. We’ve all worked too hard for the past two years on this project to pass that up.

The board continued a lengthy debate over whether or not the committee’s monetary request should be based on other methods, to the point that Great Barrington Select Board chairman Steve Bannon said: ‘I think we’ve gone down a rabbit hole that we can’t get out of.

“There are 10 government agencies, including eight cities and two school districts,” Bannon said. “It’s not up to us to tell them where the money comes from. Each gives us $15,000. If Stockbridge wants to donate it from their ARPA funds, and their lawyers say that’s fine, great. Great Barrington has money somewhere in its budget. I think we made this path too complicated.

Smith eventually changed his motion to accept Bannon’s suggestion that the school committee ask the two school districts and eight member towns for $15,000 each. The board ultimately voted to approve Smith’s motion, with the only vote against Jane Burke’s motion from the South Berkshire Regional School District committee.

“If we don’t get the $150,000 from cities and school districts, we’ll have to meet again and figure out what to do next,” Prashker said.

See the video below of the Eight Town Regional School District Planning Council meeting on Tuesday, August 23:

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