A 'no' in Lanesborough buys time for county effort
To the editor:
A Lanesborough No on March 15 would echo Great Barrington's recent no vote on a $50 million renovation for Monument Mtn. high school, and likely result in voting a revised plan in May. The messages from recurring No votes would seemingly be the same:
We have a county-wide crisis with declining school enrollments and vacant classrooms. An example: Laneborough Elementary enrollment is 205, 40 percent below 2001 target for the new school. We don't have a plan to deal with widespread excess capacities and cost inefficiencies.
The current realities of student "tuition" and choice are inequitable county-wide — huge burdens for host communities and bargains for the "sending" communities. Example; if March 15 is a Yes, the plan will cost Lanesborough $150,000 per student and cost Hancock $0). Our strongest schools draw students from the weaker ones, weakening them further and deepening town-against-town, district vs. district issues.
Locking millions into bricks and mortar makes it more difficult for communities to be flexible later if/when we have a county-wide plan. Our children and grandchildren will be the losers unless we find cost-effective, multi-community solutions — buildings will be partially empty, teaching staffs will be squeezed, courses dropped, extracurriculars cut, opportunities lost.
Based on the March 1 vote, Williamstown is seemingly ready to roll ahead on the Mt. Greylock project and set aside the county-wide issues. Based on survey results, Lanesborough seems less ready — among other things, it doesn't have powerful economic anchors like Williams College and Clark Art. The Berkshire Mall has shrunk by 60-70 percent; most of "downtown" is closed or for sale — the Lanesborough Market, Coyote Den, Pat's Gun Shop, Wieder's Auto Body, Country Tack, Vacation Village, etc.
Lanesborough's economic challenges are mirrored in most Berkshire communities, reminding us that everyone in the county is in this together. Broad awareness of excellent K-12 educational opportunities can be a critical asset for attracting and sustaining employers, as well as new residents. We have a great flagship in Williams College and fine partners in MCLA and BCC. To clarify thinking, we might ask, "how should we re-organize/consolidate our school systems to assure world-class opportunity for every student in the Berkshires AND acceptable burdens for our taxpayers?"
The 26-member Berkshire County Ed. Task Force is six months into studying the issues and has new support from Williams, Berkshire Regional Planning, UMass, and others. It will do a "status" report on the county-wide crisis this September and propose solution models in 2017. With enrollment declines projected to continue for decades, the most cost-conscious models will surely involve closing some schools and strengthening others.
Lanesborough may buy us all time for this broader planning with a No vote on March 15. If so, Greylock would be improved with "fix-its," as Monument Mountain is doing ($750,000/year through 2020), and both schools would await a larger public schools plan — not an easy choice when there is millions in "free money" on the table.
Some worry this funding requires decades of town debt, others demand progress "right now," and at least a few want first to see models for county-wide solutions. However it goes, we all care about our children, the Berkshires, and our future.
Bob Barton, Lanesborough The writer is a former Lanesborough Selectman and former School Committee chair.