Wednesday January 11, 2012

SHEFFIELD -- The Southern Berkshire Regional School District will hold a series of public hearings on a proposal to close three elementary schools in order to keep costs down and provide a level-funded budget.

The administration has proposed a $13.8 million fiscal 2013 budget that calls for closing New Marlborough Central, South Egremont and Monterey schools next year. Already, parents are expressing concern and dismay with some calling for an independent budget review.

Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee will present information and consider public comments on the prospect of closing the schools at a series of meetings in January and February. The closings are considered a way to keep the school district’s budget level-funded in order to meet the demands of towns in the district.

On Feb. 27, after considering the feedback, the committee is scheduled to vote whether to move forward with the school closures.

If seven out of 10 committee members vote to advance the issue, the question will be put to town meeting votes. Ultimately, four out of the district’s five towns -- Alford, Egremont, Monterey, New Marlborough and Sheffield -- would determine the fate of the school-closing plan.

"There is good education taking place [at each of these schools], but we’re looking at things from both a financial and educational point of view," said Superintendent Michael Singleton. "What to do with the outlying schools has been debated and discussed for a number of years. This is nothing new."

Aside from low enrollments -- 10 students at Monterey, 17 at South Egremont, and 75 at New Marlborough -- Singleton said the school’s facilities are lacking. The Monterey and South Egremont schools don’t have cafeterias, libraries, gymnasiums or nurse’s offices. And, he said, those sorts of resources are in great need of upgrading at the New Marlborough school.

None of the schools have wireless Internet or other new technologies, according to the superintendent.

"If we keep them open, major capital will be needed to upgrade the buildings, which would likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Singleton.

These costs present challenges to the requests from towns and the School Committee to produce a level-funded school budget.

Also, transportation contracts with two bus companies and teacher and staff contracts with three unions are potential cost drivers for the 2013 school budget.

School Committee Chairman Herb Abelow said contract negotiations will begin within the next few weeks.

Additionally, the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee will begin searching for a new superintendent because Singleton is retiring in August 2013. Abelow said the committee will likely hire a consultant to help guide the public search for a new leader.

The committee voted 5 to 2, with one abstention and two absences, at its Jan. 5 meeting to extend Singleton’s contract two months past the original June 30, 2013, expiration. The extra 60 days allow the superintendent to fulfill the 10 years of vested service and payment into the Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement System needed in order to collect a state pension upon retirement.

During a Nov. 17 School Committee meeting, the matter was brought up, and member Charles Flynn of South Egremont said he hoped to defeat the extension because Singleton already collects a pension from the public school system in New York, from which he previously retired.

Collecting pensions from two different states is lawful as long as contractual obligations are fulfilled.

Hearing dates

The proposal to close Monterey, New Marlborough and South Egremont schools will be discussed at the following public meetings:

n Monday, Jan. 23, at 7 p.m., Monterey Town Hall.

n Wednesday, Jan. 25, at 6:30 p.m., North Egremont Firehouse.

n Monday, Jan. 30, at 7 p.m., New Marlborough Town Hall.

n Wednesday, Feb. 8, at 7 p.m., Thomas A. Consolati Performing Arts Center, Mount Everett Regional School campus, Sheffield.

On Monday, Feb. 27, the Southern Berkshire Regional School District School Committee will vote whether to begin the process of closing the schools.