(This article was written for Mr. Heck's grade 8 ELA class, a few weeks ago)
The outbreak over the school budget which erupted three weeks ago, has recently cooled down with the school committee voting 9 to 1 to approve the final proposed budget for the school on Thursday, March 3.
Heather Bellow explains the situation right now: “As the cost of employing actual human beings and keeping up with infrastructure continues to drive up town and school budgets, officials and townsfolk occasionally erupt in frustration over what and how to shave dollars and still keep things running.”
On Thursday, February 25, the school committee met to announce what the proposed school budget from the finance-sub committee included, or didn’t include. Parents, teachers, and a swarm of MMRHS students filled the auditorium at Monument Valley Regional Middle School.
At the first meeting, the proposed budget, and all the cuts and figures that it included were announced. The proposed budget entailed the cut of the music program from 5 positions at all three schools, to 4. This implied that after the retirement of music teacher Mr. Stevens at the end of this school year, his position would not be replaced. This budget also cut a full-time position in the art department to part-time, and a 2nd grade teacher position entirely. These three main issues have been the source of much debate and controversy at the school committee meetings and finance committee meetings, on social media and through chatter around the community.
The original proposed cut came from the Finance Sub-committee, and was given to the school committee to manipulate and eventually vote upon. At each of the three school committee meetings that occurred on the 25th of February, the 3rd of March, and the 10th of March, the budget was discussed, and the public and the committee was given a chance to express their opinions on the proposed budget.
Superintendent Dr. Dillon began the meeting with a speech talking about the high school, the cuts, but also about how we need to do a “grand rethinking”, and a “reimagination of our district”. He says that “we need to have lots of conversations with parents and teachers,” and rethink what our district is, our values, and what we will do in the future.
As soon as open mic began, everyone from former students, to parents of high school students, to high school students themselves, came up to the mike to speak their mind about the proposed cuts. The main issue addressed was the proposed cut to the music program. Everyone but two of the people that came up to speak were in protest of the proposed cut to the music program.
Music lovers and students at the high school and middle school both, passionately opposed the cut to the music program in the new budget, and have been vocal about it throughout the past three weeks.
A Facebook page titled Save Berkshire Hills Music Department, and hosted by David Adler, a parent of a Monument Monument student, was also created to protest the cuts. Created
by David Adler, this page has been posted on regularly since created. Members of the community rally supporters, show their support, and post emails that were sent to the school committee as well.
Some people who posted urged others to, as Rebecca Gold says in a post on the Facebook page, “come to the Town Meeting”, and also to “send an email to email@example.com, if you are a Great Barrington voter who will come to the Town Meeting and support the school budget.” She also voiced this at a school committee meeting to get people aware of the effort to collect numbers in order to “show the School Committee.”
Robert Adler, is against the cuts to the arts, and explains why in this email to the school committee, which he also posted on Save Berkshire Hills Music Department. He says, “When I arrived to MMRHS in the Fall of 2008, I was a loner and pretty entirely on my own.” But when Shakespeare and Company came to MMRHS, and he became the production stage manager, that let him “go on to stage manage around a dozen musicals,” and other arts related events at Monument, and then to be able to say that, “I have spent the better part of the last two weeks serving as the second assistant to the President of Lionsgate Motion Picture.” He says that, “the MMRHS stage gave me a shot at using my analytical mind to create art...Without them, I couldn't have found my passion in life, and would not remember high school as a time full of fond memories.” This one story of a Monument graduate’s strong connection to the arts, shows how the arts really are important in the Monument community. However, countless other letters have been written by grads, and people who have been affected by music and arts at MMRHS, and in some cases such as this, the experience has been life-changing.
Emma Adler also speaks at the first school committee meeting, saying, “I owe everything in my life to music.”
A grad speaking along the same lines said, “Music is the most important thing in my life.”
Passionate community member at the mic; Jacob Robbins, student council president, on deck.
Kevin Costello, a current student at MMRHS, came up to the mic to speak, and said, “With the help of Mr. Stevens, I was able to move from 5th trombone at MMRHS, to 1st trombone in Western Mass.”
“Mr. Stevens is a good band teacher; He cares about his job, and wishes everyone else would, because he really likes music,” Adam Boscarino, a MVRMS eighth grader, says. He was very disappointed to hear about Mr. Stevens’ retirement at the end of this year, because it means that the eighth grade won’t be able to listen to, or participate in the band next year with Mr. Stevens.
Another speaker said that, “What major company doesn’t have design as a major part of their business,” talking about how the music and arts programs helps everyone in life, in whatever job they might have or come to have.
Susan Higa, who also spoke out, said, “These cuts to the arts program are going to have a ripple effect on the elementary school, and I don’t think they will come back.” Many people shared her opinion about this “ripple” effect, such as Mr. Heck, an ELA teacher at Monument Valley, who says that, “
A 2nd grade teacher also defends her part in the budget, “(the kids) are starving for connection. By eliminating an art teacher, they will get less, and they need more, not less. It is all about a well-rounded child. Science and Math are important, but we cannot afford to lose art and music: They are just as essential.”
Committee member Richard Dohoney, who is also on the finance sub committee, replies to this comment when saying, “People wouldn’t make these decisions if they didn’t think it was workable or would hurt kids,” and said he has a child in the music program himself. He said he is “confident” that while there will be some changes, “it won’t hurt kids.”
Peter Dillon explains why these cuts were made where they were, “We can’t keep doing what we’re doing with less money.” He also says that, “We looked at all the areas where cuts have previously been made and where we might make additional cuts. In 7 years there have been no cuts in art and music, but many in every other area. We decided that if we need to cut, that’s where we could best work through it.”
Pastor Van, of the First Congregational Church in Great Barrington, says that he feels bad for Mr. Stevens that it is so soon after his retirement that this detrimental cut is happening in the music and arts industry.
The school committee says that they made cuts in the only place that they could, without harming education. The district has found some ways to save money for this year, and even pulled some money from the rainy day fund, or the E&D, Excess and Deficiency fund-the fund that receives money when the district has leftover money from a budget year, and puts it E&D for emergencies, or just a “rainy day”-but that still couldn’t lessen the blow to taxpayers without having to hit music and art.
Dr. Dillon says that, “This rattles me as I’m sure as it does everybody here,” noting all the state funding cuts since he began here 9 years ago. “We can’t keep doing what we’re doing with less resources…we could now die a death of a thousand cuts.”
“We looked at all the areas, where cuts have previously been made and where we might make additional cuts. In 7 years there have been no cuts in art and music, but many in every other area. We decided that if we need to cut, that’s where we could best work through it.”
The community as a whole is saying that in these culturally vibrant Berkshires, reducing a music and art program that sends students to famous music conservatories and art schools, and has graduated noted musicians and artists, is a mistake.
Mr. Steven’s posted on this page, saying that, “It is up to the community to decide what it wants to provide for its children,” he wrote. “For the past 49 years the BHRSD community has expected and supported an active and outstanding band program and they have provided the resources necessary to achieve that. I don’t think the music department can continue to provide that along with everything else they are doing with only four positions.” Four positions was the original proposed music cut.
Peter Dillon says something at a meeting, saying, “It’s not about cutting,” Dillon said, “but about growing.”
Jacob Robbins, the student council president at MMRHS, read a speech at the town meeting, and also posts on the Facebook page, saying, “I am so proud of our student body gathering around collectively to oppose something that would drastically change the culture of Monument. And that's really what these cuts are--something that would drastically change the culture and values at Monument...This plays into a bigger problem: For the last sixteen years the budget has gotten smaller and smaller. When can we actually grow?...We've cut Science, English, Math, and Social Studies. We've cut back on supplies and positions...We need to be making smart investments in our children's future. It's not fair to them to have to keep making due with less and less. We should be growing our budget, not shrinking it.
These conflicting perspectives show how much work the district still has to do. But “communication”, and a more transparent district, really “showcasing” what the schools have to offer to the community to get them on their side in terms of education, `in Mr. Heck’s view, an 8th grade teacher at MVRMS, could be a start.
This year’s 2017 school budget for the three towns increases by 7% compared to last year’s, 2016 budget. Our district’s taxpayers divide the school budget costs into 3 parts. Great Barrington taxpayers pay 52% of the costs, and also coincidentally are where 52% of the students come from. West Stockbridge and Stockbridge split the rest. Officials and members of the Regional Agreement Committee are studying the fairness of the tax and cost division between the three towns.
Committee member Fred Clark, “I love what we’re doing in this district.” But, he said, “we are in or near a financial crisis. Increases to towns are 6, 7, 8 percent — we’re doing this every year.”
Committee member Jason St. Peter said he was concerned about deplorable conditions at the high school, and said not renovating is “kicking the can down the road.”
MMRHS music director Mr. Stevens, says that his philosophy is "To share the love for your subject with your students.” He posted on the Facebook page Save Berkshire Hills Music Department as well. He “blesses” the compromise budget of 4.6 employees.
4.6 employees means that there will be 4 full-time employees, and one employee that will be cut 20% of his/her work time off of full-time. So, a person will be hired to replace Mr. Stevens.
Richard Fields, a school committee member, shows the community in his opening speech, “People who don’t like this,” he said, “run for office, be a voice.”
Teachers at MVRMS are also being affected in this budget. Ms. Kujawski, an 8th grade teacher at Monument Valley Regional Middle School speaks her opinion on the subject: “I feel like it is a sort of irony that we live in the Berkshires, with so rich an arts and music environment, and have such a cut to our arts.”
She also expresses her concern with, “the ability of the school to offer opportunities.” Specifically science-related, such as “lab opportunities”, she mentions, but the budget might also cut into the amount of materials that teachers are able to buy for classes.
Mr. Heck, also an 8th grade teacher at Monument Valley, agrees with Ms. Kujawski on the point of materials and opportunities relating to the budget, saying that, “I assume that the Shakespeare program is in jeopardy of not happening,” for next year’s class because of this proposed budget cut. The program that led Robert Adler to become so successful in the music and arts industry.
He also says that this will affect his family, and his life as a father, not only as a teacher, saying, “My son is interested in music...and just started playing the recorder, and that’s a big deal to him, he wants to play the ukulele, and the guitar, so if that program is cut...or delayed, that would make me bummed out that my son doesn’t have that opportunity.” He also says that, “I was sad when I learned about this, because the programs that we offer will be less robust now, because the . He also says what many parents agree with in the high school community: “Even students who are not directly involved in (the programs), enjoy what they have to offer.”
During the 1st committee meeting, Christine Shelton, a school committee member, says, “I hate when we have to make cuts, especially when it affects so many people.”
However, from the superintendent’s point of view, “we can’t continue decreasing enrollment, and increasing the school expenses, something has to be cut.” When the superintendent and the Finance Committee were working on a budget to send to the school committee, came across the problem that Dr. Dillon mentioned: decreasing enrollment. With decreasing enrollment, and teacher’s salaries eternally increasing
The new budget also “helps taxpayers”, as $150,000 will be saved by a new health insurance plan, and around $70,000 from the switch to solar energy from a new solar farm in Housatonic.
After three school committee meetings, the school committee succumbed to the public’s outrage at the cuts, and created a compromise budget. The budget brought back most of the music program, giving it 4.6 positions, up from the previous proposed 4, but not fully revived as it was before it was brought onto the chopping block. The art position was fully brought back to full-time, and so was the 2nd grade teacher position.
Richard Dohoney, a school committee member states the reason why committee members changed their minds: “They did it out of love for the district.”
Photo above by Heather Bellow, Berkshire Edge