|Lanesborough Raises Questions On School Regionalization Vote|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
02:33AM / Tuesday, August 01, 2017
|The Board of Selectmen held a forum on the regionalization vote on Monday.|
LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — The long-discussed vote on regionalization of the Lanesborough-Williamstown schools goes to the voters on Nov. 14.
The Board of Selectmen set that date for a special town meeting to handle the question of whether or not Williamstown and Lanesborough should join together with Mount Greylock Regional as a single K-12 regional school district. School officials have been talking about taking such a step for years and it is eyed to save both towns money and improve efficiency.
"Even though we have regionalization at the high school and the shared superintendency, we still have three separate school districts," Chris Dodig, a Lanesborough representative on the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee said during a forum with townspeople and the Board of Selectmen on Monday.
Mount Greylock Regional School already provides a single district for middle through high school; some years ago, Williamstown and Lanesborough formed a superintendency union between the two elementary schools, and an agreement to share administration between the union and the regional school district.
But, those complex agreements created the current situation in which there are four school committees; Lanesborough Elementary, Williamstown Elementary, and Mount Greylock — each with their own budgets and union contracts — and SU71. All of which is said to bog down the work of the superintendent.
"We lose efficiency. When they are doing those meetings, we'd prefer they use some of that time on the educational product," Dodig said.
November's vote would be to meld the three school districts and budgets into one. There'd be a single school committee for all three schools, one budget, one set of contracts, and one governing body for the superintendent to answer to.
"The concern we hear the most often is we will lose local control of our elementary school. I guess that is a valid concern," Dodig said.
School officials have said the concerns in Lanesborough center on being able to manage costs. The town is apprehensive about giving up such direct oversight on the elementary school budget. Selectman Henry "Hank" Sayers said on Monday that to alleviate that concern, he'd like a provision to be in the contract that doesn't allow a budget to be passed unless both towns agree.
"If it happened at Greylock, Lanesborough could be outvoted if it comes to push, shove," Sayers said.
A district vote hasn't happened in some 30 years, and if a Mount Greylock budget goes to one then the larger population in Williamstown is enough to override the wishes of Lanesborough. The town has voted down Mount Greylock budgets more recently, and some town officials said the only reason those hadn't gone to a district vote was that Lanesborough knew it wouldn't win. Sayers said those instances were only regarding one school, and he sees a greater potential for budget disputes when three schools are involved.
However, on the Williamstown side, Dodig said what he is hearing is that residents there want to be able to fund their elementary school at a higher level than Lanesborough would approve. Williamstown officials are worried that Lanesborough could restrict the educational offerings their town.
"There is no perfect answer for local control but it is something we should continue to talk about," Dodig said.
Another concern regarding control would be what happened in Cheshire and Adams this year. That regional K-12 district voted to close Cheshire Elementary School and Cheshire didn't have the votes to prevent it. Dodig said that concern was addressed in 2015 when a new regional agreement was crafted. He said if either Williamstown or Lanesborough school were to close, the town in which the school is located would need to approve it at a town meeting.
The size of the school committee is also still in flux. Dodig said the most recent consideration would be to have nine members, four from Lanesborough and five from Williamstown. Another option is to stay with the seven-member board similar to the current setup for Mount Greylock.
For Finance Committee member Ronald Tinkham, that raises another concern about control. The Mount Greylock representatives are broken down by town but are voted on by the entire district. Tinkham fears the possibility that Williamstown could vote in a Lanesborough resident who doesn't truly reflect the views of the town. Dodig said theoretically that could happen, but with Mount Greylock, he couldn't think of a time when a representative won the seat without winning the home town.
Any financial savings may be more muted because the majority of the savings have already seen through the shared administration. Nonetheless, a financial look at what regionalization would do for the towns this year show Lanesborough's cost decreasing by close to $400,000, Dodig said, and Williamstown's would go up by about $200,000. Those estimates are in line with estimates from 2015.
While the cost savings may not be massive, the educational benefits could be, Dodig said, by further aligning educational policies, curriculum, and staffing. He said both elementary school principals agree.
"The Mount Greylock School Committee generally has been working on regionalization for a long time," Dodig said. But the committee is seeing it "is the elementary schools that will experience the change. We handed off the reins to the elementary schools."
The chairs of the two elementary school committee, administrators, and the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools are now digging into the details about how the regional agreement would be crafted — and settling on provisions to go into the new agreement.
Tinkham added that he'd like to see the funding formula amended to include nonprofits in the measure of each town's wealth when it comes to divvying up the cost share. Right now there is a measure of wealth, but Tinkham feels Williams College isn't included when it should be. Lanesborough officials had pushed for including nonprofits in assessing each town's ability to pay when the district agreement was amended for the school building project, seeing it as a way to reduce Lanesborough's share, but it ultimately wasn't supported.
Tinkham had a number of questions about regionalization, including asking for a clause requiring the superintendent to live locally, to have any students engaged with police deal with officials from their own town, and allowing a town to put up extra money to fund a specific program in its own elementary school — such as if Williamstown wanted a certain band program at its school but Lanesborough didn't, then Williamstown could put in the extra money to fund it.
Others questioned how regionalization would fit with the Berkshire Educational Task Force's vote to recommend one district for the entire county. That goal is a decade out and the countywide group will next be talking about the details, crafting a roadmap of how to get to that point.
Don Dermyer voiced concern that in the future if Lanesborough wanted to engage in those discussions, it would be hamstrung by what the regional committee wanted to do.
"Maybe we should delay this for several years, say let's see what is coming down the road," he said. "Lanesborough could be in a situation where long term, we might have been better doing something else."
Curtis Asch disagrees. He said there is nothing that would hamper the town from being engaged in the future in larger conversations like those proposed by the task force. But, in the meantime, there are benefits being seen from regionalization. Dodig said it is too early to weigh in on whether or not Lanesborough would want to join such a super district, but regionalizing on a smaller scale with this vote would help the town.
"I think this single step positions us stronger if some of this other shared services and regionalization go on," Dodig said.
Another concern raised was about getting committee members. Often Lanesborough struggles to fill its elementary School Committee and by adding work and drive time, the concern would be that finding volunteers for the job narrows the pool.
Selectman Robert Ericson raised a question about maintaining the building and grounds. Currently, mowing the lawns or plowing is handled by the individual towns. Ericson doesn't want to see the district take on the responsibility and create a new bureaucracy just for that.
"That would be very inefficient and very expensive," Ericson said.
Dodig said typically the towns still own the land and the schools so the current situation would continue.
"Generally, the towns in these situations will lease the building to the district of a nominal sum," Dodig said.
Asch questioned how school choice revenue would be sorted. He also said there are students from Lanesborough who choice into Williamstown Elementary and he wondered what would happen to them.
Superintendent Kimberly Grady said interdistrict choice wouldn't change much, with the School Committee voting to open spots and then student applying. The only difference would be that the money stays in the district and not shifted between towns.
Tinkham added tuition money goes into the town's general fund, and not to the school and he wondered how that would change.
Airing the concerns is what the Board of Selectmen had hoped when scheduling the forum. School officials said they will review the questions, set up a similar forum in Williamstown, and then put the final touches on the specifics. In September and October, school officials plan multiple public meetings on it and have the specifics nailed down a month before the vote.
If approved, the transition will take 18 months starting in January. The budget being crafted then will be for the region, and the merging of contracts and school committees will unfold after that.